The Future of Blades of Avernum

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AuthorTopic: The Future of Blades of Avernum
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Now that I've had time to take a breath and figure out what my schedule looks like for the next while, I wanted to let the Blades of Avernum community know what's going to happen. I'm actually leaving for one of those vacation things tomorrow, so I won't be able to respond to comments right away. But I did want to get the information out.

1. I will still be maintaining Blades of Avernum so that it provides a reliable gaming experience for people who want to play the scenarios. For Mac fans, I will be releasing a Universal (i.e. Intel Compatible) version. For Windows fans, I will make sure the game runs properly under Vista. For the next few years, I will make sure that the people who registered the game get to play it.

2. We will still be accepting, processing, and providing free hosting for new scenarios.

3. We have no plans to update the game engine or to fix bugs that only affect scenario designers.

4. We have no plans to ever again release a game where users can design scenarios. The current game systems are too complicated for most users to pick up in a reasonable time frame, the games themselves take way too much time to write, and after their release we are generally too busy keeping the business afloat to support them as well as we would like.

A bit more information on what's going on here, and why we had to come to these decisions.

Blades of Avernum took a LOT of work to develop. Taking the scripting system and turning it into something suitable for general release took far longer than we expected. And Blades of Avernum was not a successful product. It didn't sell nearly as well as it needed to to maintain a healthy business.

As a result, for the two years following its release, I had to work like mad to try to catch up, sales-wise. It got to the point where, if Avernum 4 wasn't successful, Spiderweb Software was going to close. Fortunately, Avernum 4 surpassed expectations, so this company is still a going concern.

(A portion of the Spiderweb community was disappointed in Avernum 4. Bear in mind, however, when I look at it, I see the game that saved my business.)

However, to stay profitable, I need to concentrate more than I did in the past on making sure hours spent in development are not wasted. Which brings us back to Blades of Avernum. To fix the scenario engine bugs (which, I stress, affect only a tiny portion of the people who ever install the game) will take weeks of Mac development and testing, followed by porting the changes to Windows and testing them, followed by the work of a release, followed by making everyone update their copy to be able to play the new changes, plus the work and expense of printing new CDs.

I have looked at the scenario bugs list quite a number of times. They are irritating problems, to be sure, but there is nothing there that justifies this level of commitment.

For the work to be worth it, these things have to happen.

1. The improvements have to result in new scenarios that would not have existed otherwise.
2. These new scenarios will have to bring new people to purchase Blades of Avernum (a game which people didn't want much in the first place).
3. The benefits have to be better than if I sat down and worked on an all-new game people wanted to play.

I just don't see these things as happening.

But understand something. I am not happy about this. It really pains me to have a product with bugs in it, and it saddens me to let the community down like this. I am sorry. I apologize to the scenario designers for not providing as good a system for their work as they should have. And I am sorry that the realities of keeping my business functioning are forcing me to be so hard-nosed about what my limited development time is spent on.

That's all I have to say, except that I'll do my best to make Avernum 5 kick ass.

- Jeff Vogel

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Posts: 960 | Registered: Tuesday, September 18 2001 07:00
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This, sadly, makes a lot of sense. I think 4 is probably a good thing; between BoA and BoE, we have enough scenario editing capability to satisfy us, I think.

And as for 3, well, I at least understand. I'm not happy about it, but I do understand. Most of the bugs would be difficult to fix or (as in the case of the corescendata and default graphic problems) can be easily fixed by the community itself.

On the other hand, the Unhandled Exceptions are pretty dire: just about every scenario ever made by a Mac-using designer has caused UEs on Windows computers, and they're damn near impossible for designers to track down. I'm not sure that they could be termed "bugs that only affect designers." But we'll make do. Never let it be said that the BoA community is less resilient than the BoE community was, persisting even in the face of mystifying and frustrating bugs.

On a slightly different subject, I've long suspected that BoA didn't sell very well, but I didn't realize that it sold just that poorly. I bet that quite a lot more people bought BoE back in the day, which is much more responsible for the huge variety of scenarios for BoE than anything inherent in the community or whatever.

And knowing that A4 was what you had to do to stay in business makes it make a lot more sense to me. I'm glad that you're getting to be out of financial danger now, anyway, and, as I said in the other thread, I look forward to A5.

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Edit: see post below. UBB glitch (I guess) whereby Kel's post seemed to have obliterated mine in mid-air, so I wrote a shorter replacement, only to see the original materialize after all.

[ Friday, December 08, 2006 23:32: Message edited by: Student of Trinity ]

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Posts: 3335 | Registered: Thursday, September 4 2003 07:00
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What about releasing the source code to BOA, so the community could mess with it? If it's bringing in negligible money, and Spiderweb has moved on to much more advanced engines, then it would seem that giving the BOA source away would be a cheap gift to the community. And it would tend to expand Jeff's world of Avernum.

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Posts: 3335 | Registered: Thursday, September 4 2003 07:00
Shock Trooper
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Then again, releasing the source code would basically eliminate all future cash flows Jeff can hope to receive from the game, since anyone with half-decent computer skills could compile their own BoA. Good for the community, but bad for business.
Posts: 353 | Registered: Monday, January 9 2006 08:00
Law Bringer
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quote:
Originally written by Student of Trinity:

If it's bringing in negligible money, and Spiderweb has moved on to much more advanced engines
Yes, because SW has a history of releasing their old games as abandonware; just look at the Exile trilogy and BoE. Oh wait. ;)

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Posts: 8752 | Registered: Wednesday, May 14 2003 07:00
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Understood. I don't think anyone will be pleased by this announcement, but I doubt anyone will be surprised either.

Regarding A4: it's not all bad, it's just that there are a lot of things about it that are easy to make fun of. My view is that it was a (mostly) good standalone game, but a bad Avernum game. I suppose its sales figures show that most of your customers are not continuity wonks like us.

[ Saturday, December 09, 2006 03:54: Message edited by: N-Rays ]

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Posts: 9973 | Registered: Saturday, March 30 2002 08:00
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I like BoA as it is. The bugs are irritating, for some things which I actually need just don't work. On the other hand, to change that isn't such a hassle, it's just a pity.

I'm also very sorry to hear BoA solled so poorly, I never suspected it. I really like BoA, and I like telling my own story in the BoA engine. To be honest, i wouldn't want to make a scenario in the new Avernum engine, just like die-hard Exile fans don't want to make scenarios in the BoA engine.

I'm very happy to read point (1). When you announced Nethergate 2 and Avernum 5, I started to get a little worried I was never going to play BoA again, as it doesn't work on Mac OS 10.4.8 at the moment.

With (3) I agree with kelandon: it's sad, but I understand it.

About (4): I understand that, and peronally, as I said, I won't want to make a scenario in the new Avernum engine. I, for one, that find that a real pity, to be honest. BoA is good anough for me, and I'm totally in love with BoA's graphics.

If Avernum 5 will be like Geneforge 4, which, for some reason I really liked (and I only played the first two or three sections of it), then I can't wait. What I read in the other thread about it I found very promising.

Happy holidays Jeff, come back in one piece.

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Posts: 3029 | Registered: Saturday, June 18 2005 07:00
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I am surprised that BoA hasn't sold that well. While I haven't had the time to play the community created scenarios since I am going through the older games, some day I will get to them.

I'm hoping a successful year of the new games will revive sales in BoA so you will reconsider.
Posts: 4643 | Registered: Friday, February 10 2006 08:00
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I think the reason for BoA's poor sales might have a lot to do with the nature of the registration barrier. In BoA, the barrier comes at the end of Valley of Dying Things: a single, self-contained scenario. A lot of people on these forums have said that Valley of Dying Things wasn't all that impressive and gave them no particular motivation to register and see the other scenarios -- but even the ones who like VoDT can already get closure on its story without needing to register.

Sure, we can try and sell them BoA based on Jeff's other scenarios and on third-party scenarios, but those are scenarios they haven't played yet. On the other hand, with Jeff's other games, the registration barrier comes maybe 1/5 to 1/4 of the way through the game, by which time the player is already sufficiently invested in the game to want to play through to the finish, and hopefully to pay for the privilege of doing so.

In hindsight, making the prepackaged scenarios more connected to each other and to the Exile/Avernum continuity would help to alleviate this problem, but it's a bit late to change them now. Still, I wonder how many more people would have registered BoA if VoDT had ended on a cliffhanger, and a sequel had been available to registered users.

[ Saturday, December 09, 2006 05:27: Message edited by: Dowsing ]

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A good point, but on the other hand the intention was probably to show in the demo that you can use BOA to make manageably small scenerios instead of the original epic-length games. A better case might have been to cut half-way through ASR, thus giving away more of the built-in game, but not giving away any 3rd party scenarios, of course. And of course this could still be done.

Heck, even I played VoDT, precisely because I could see one whole story for free. I was averse to buying BOA because there was no way I'd have enough time to design anything, but if I owned the game I wouldn't be able to resist trying, and would soon have wound up in the gutter offering to solve differential equations for food.

Offering me half another scenario at that point might have sucked me in nonetheless. Thank goodness, I guess.

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I agree that the registration barrier was probably a killer just like the Tomb of Dhahis-Bok in Exile 2. Had I been a new user VoDT would hardly have impressed me enough to buy a new game if I had no idea what BoA was all about.

The idea of releasing the source code is an interesting one. On one hand, the community could pick things up and fix bugs and add things as needed. On the other, it would effective kill all sales. Does it make business sense? To first order, no. However, as pointed out, the sales are pretty small as is. Also, this does create a sort of free advertising for the older games as well. Depending on your perspective, it may actually be a good idea to release it.

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Posts: 3726 | Registered: Tuesday, September 18 2001 07:00
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Disappointing. Not surprising at all, but still disappointing.

That said, BoA has more serious issues than bugs.

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quote:
Wikipedia:

Blender was developed as an in-house application by the Dutch animation studio NeoGeo (not to be confused with the Neo-Geo game console) and Not a Number Technologies (NaN); the main author, Ton Roosendaal, founded NaN in June 1998 to further develop and distribute the program. The program was initially distributed as shareware until NaN went bankrupt in 2002.

The creditors agreed to release Blender as free software, under the terms of the GNU General Public License, for a one-time payment of ?100,000. On July 18, 2002, a Blender funding campaign was started by Roosendaal in order to collect donations and on September 7, 2002 it was announced that enough funds had been collected and that the Blender source code would be released. Blender is now a free/open source program being actively developed by the Blender Foundation.
Maybe something like this could be attempted... with a smaller amount of money, naturally, given how the userbase of Blades of Avernum is loads smaller than that of Blender's. :/

[ Saturday, December 09, 2006 07:29: Message edited by: pinski_88 ]
Posts: 25 | Registered: Monday, November 13 2006 08:00
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It's not as though Spiderweb's board of directors will get fired by the shareholders if they don't squeeze in every cent of profit possible. If Jeff's newer games don't sell so well, he'll have no choice but to hang on to whatever he can, no matter what longer term benefits he might thereby forego. If they do well enough, he can afford to release BOA on a whim, either as an act of pure philanthropy, or as a calculated publicity stunt whose value in increased sales of newer games would exceed the BOA sales lost.

I'd like to think it could be a reasonable idea (one that somebody else suggested first, though I don't remember who), in a sufficiently upbeat business climate for Spiderweb.

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Posts: 3335 | Registered: Thursday, September 4 2003 07:00
Law Bringer
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*sigh*...

It seems that I arrived in the community one series too late. This is really pretty depressing. I mean, 1 and 2 are uplifting to a degree. 3 is sad, but manageable. 4 is downright depressing.

And I also can't quite believe that BoA didn't sell well. Perhaps at some point in the future Jeff could collect the cream of the BoA crop and sell them on CD... didn't something similar happen with BoE? I mean, it'd give a much better impression of the game itself. Then again, I suppose there'd be the issue of whether or not to compensate the designers...

Oh well. If A4 kept the company alive, then huzzah. Here's to A5!

EDIT: I just wish there was some way to stay more involved with the canon, I guess... designing for BoA really made it feel like there was more of a community surrounding the Avernum games. That said, I won't stop designing. Meh, I guess I'll just have to apply to help betatest.

[ Saturday, December 09, 2006 10:20: Message edited by: Ephesos ]

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Posts: 4130 | Registered: Friday, March 26 2004 08:00
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On the flip side of the coin, when it comes to BoA selling poorly, it also somewhat limited the potential for a flood of bad scenarios. In BoE, there are 95 scenarios rated a 6 or more, and 112 scenarios rated 4 or less (This isn't counting movies or utilities). That's a ratio of 1.17 bad scenarios for every good scenario. In BoA, there are 22 scenarios rated 6 or more, and 4 scenarios rated 4 or less. This equates to a ratio of 5.5 good scenarios for every bad scenario. I'll let you draw your own conclusion.

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Posts: 2686 | Registered: Friday, September 8 2006 07:00
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Some quick notes before I go out the door.

I have plans to release the code of Blades of Exile before too long. First, though, I have to find it. The Windows code is trapped on an old machine, and I need to figure out how to get it out.

The Blades of Avernum code won't be made public for quite a while, though. It does still sell, slowly, and I want to try to recoup a bit more before I give it away. Reducing its price to $15 has helped sales, and I am still generating new people to play your scenarios.

About the Unhandled Exceptions. I would bet money the situation here is caused by using calls to affect characters/items/whatever that are out of range. (Like setting the level of character -3, or character 220.) Whenever I looked at a scenario with this sort of crash, the problem was accessing something out of range.

Pre-Intel Macintoshes handle looking out of bounds of an array fairly well. Windows (and Intel Macs) frequently crash under the same circumstances. That's why you're getting the crashes when you move the thing from Mac to Windows.

A lot of this is my fault for not putting good enough error checking in. I skimped on this because I was freaking out over how long it was taking to make the scripting engine, and it was a real mistake. If I have to patch Blades of Avernum to make it work on Vista, I'll also try to tighten the script error checking up a bit.

- Jeff Vogel

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Posts: 960 | Registered: Tuesday, September 18 2001 07:00
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quote:
Originally written by Nioca:

On the flip side of the coin, when it comes to BoA selling poorly, it also somewhat limited the potential for a flood of bad scenarios. In BoE, there are 95 scenarios rated a 6 or more, and 112 scenarios rated 4 or less (This isn't counting movies or utilities). That's a ratio of 1.17 bad scenarios for every good scenario. In BoA, there are 22 scenarios rated 6 or more, and 4 scenarios rated 4 or less. This equates to a ratio of 5.5 good scenarios for every bad scenario. I'll let you draw your own conclusion.
Might be only me, but some Bldes of Avernum scenarios are little overated too. :/
Posts: 25 | Registered: Monday, November 13 2006 08:00
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The architecture of the more advanced design of the BoA style than the BoE style lends itself to a much higher learning curve. In BoE, you have one compact file all done with nodes. In BoA, you have lots of little files all with their own scripts. Although the BoA model is more desirable from a software designer standpoint, I feel it is less so for a general scenario design tool.

An appropriate compromise would have been something that would read in the relevant files as needed. Users could script with traditional BoE style nodes, but a more advanced user could customize the script. In the end, Blades of Avernum forces the designer to keep track of lots of little compartments and such. Blades of Exile's biggest strength, I feel, was its compactness and ability to write a scenario with very little effort.

I think something such as a Blades Editor could work in the future if attached to a much larger game. One way to implement this is to hard code in the game a maximum town number or zone the player could enter without registering. Additionally, only the default game would be accessible so user scenarios would not be playable.

To summarize, I see two problems with the BoA model:

1) Too spread out of an interface, needs to be compacted for ease of use. Theoretically, this could be done for the BoA Editor with much effort.

2) A suboptimal marketing strategy of one small playable scenario. Big games tend to make the bucks.

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Posts: 3726 | Registered: Tuesday, September 18 2001 07:00
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quote:
Originally written by Spidweb:

I have plans to release the code of Blades of Exile before too long.
You were saving the best news for last, weren't you? This is awesome! Finally!

quote:
Reducing its price to $15 has helped sales, and I am still generating new people to play your scenarios.
Yes, this seems like a good thing. I understand if you wait a while yet before releasing the code. SoT's point, though, is a reasonable one: if Nethergate v2.0 and A5 sell like crazy (and I'd bet on the latter, although I'm not totally sure about the former), you might just at that point be able to give BoA away.

quote:
About the Unhandled Exceptions. I would bet money the situation here is caused by using calls to affect characters/items/whatever that are out of range. (Like setting the level of character -3, or character 220.) Whenever I looked at a scenario with this sort of crash, the problem was accessing something out of range.
Yes, kinda. The problem is that referencing things that are out of range is common to an enormous number of different calls in an enormous number of different situations, sometimes only obscurely. (The clear_town bug comes to mind.) Saying that UEs come when you access things that are out of range is like saying that standard script errors occur when your script has typos: it's true, but it's hard from that alone to tell what the problem is.

quote:
If I have to patch Blades of Avernum to make it work on Vista, I'll also try to tighten the script error checking up a bit.
This would be much appreciated.

And as for Stareye's points: at some point in the not-too-distant future (shortly after the contest, perhaps), I'd like to sit down and see what we, as a community, can do to make the BoA editor easier to learn and use. This is, in a large part, on us.

[ Saturday, December 09, 2006 11:50: Message edited by: Kelandon ]

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Arancaytar: Every time you ask people to compare TM and Kel, you endanger the poor, fluffy kittens.
Smoo: Get ready to face the walls!
Ephesos: In conclusion, yarr.

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The Archive of all released BoE scenarios ever
Posts: 7968 | Registered: Saturday, February 28 2004 08:00
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Actually, I'm quite surprised that JV even considered releasing the source for BoA. BoE I can see, but the scripting engine of BoA is still being used in Geneforge and Avernum 4. If he were to release the source, he could stand to lose a lot more than what he could have netted from BoA sales. For instance, some opportunist could pick out the scripting, dialog, and AI aspects of BoA, and spend their excess time on making a game with better graphics, cutscenes, and music. Bam! JV just marginalized himself. Just making BoA free would be a better publicity stunt, though not as popular with the designers.

As for releasing BoE's code... hopefully by then I'll have a few more years under my belt so I can actually be of some use in playing with the code.

On the difficulty of BoA's scripting: would it be of any use if I made some type of script preprocessor? For instance, you give a SDF a name at the top of a script, and the program would replace all instances of that name with a get_flag or set_flag call depending on the situation. That would be the extend of how far we could alter the scripting without changing the code.

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Posts: 1509 | Registered: Tuesday, January 10 2006 08:00
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Pirating of the source code is a concern, but not much really. Although the Geneforge engine takes a lot from BoA, there have already been significant changes and enhancements made to the basic scripting engine. Sure, one could theoretically rip off the code and enhance it, but at some point it becomes easier just to write your own the way you want.

I think what could help with BoA is what I said, take a look at BoE, a very successful product. We need something to integrate everything into one nice application like that. You click a button, it loads up the dialogue nodes. Another one it brings up the special states with the ability to make your own basic ones with nodes. An area for special items, quests, shops, etc. What it comes down to is a single application to do everything.

I agree with Kel, we need to sit down and decide. I think, however, that the key is there needs to be additional improvements in the Editor itself. We can put up as many tutorials as we like, but if we cannot reduce the amount of effort it takes to write a basic BoA scenario, then we have accomplished little.

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Posts: 3726 | Registered: Tuesday, September 18 2001 07:00
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Didn't BoE have the same registration barrier as BoA? And BoE didn't sell so badly. So I think it's silly to argue that the registration barrier was a serious problem. It didn't help, but I think the oft-mentioned points about the relative complexity and unfriendliness of the editor were the problem.

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Posts: 3560 | Registered: Wednesday, November 7 2001 08:00
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I'm not saying it is the problem, but part of it. With BoE, you could quickly point to 30 other scenarios to play, BoA does not have that luxury so you have to rely more on the demo.

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