Many people who play video games have a brief interval in their lives where they’re struck by a sudden jolt of inspiration, where they pinpoint a scrap of fertile land in an ever-tilled genre, and an idea for a hit game blooms. Unfortunately, once the euphoric rush of the initial breakthrough has passed, and the frantic note-taking and frenzied discussion of early days gives way to a thicket of seeming-insurmountable obstacles – usually an existing career, a lack of industry connections, or a complete dearth of programming knowledge – most of us shove our Great Ideas in a drawer someplace and let them gather dust as greater concerns colonize our time.
However, some of us are more primed for opportunity than others: in 2013, when Bay Area software engineer Stephanie Dee saw that a few acquaintances of hers were Kickstarting a hugely-ambitious simulation game called “Stonehearth” that aimed to redefine the boundaries of the genre, she left behind a decade-long career in the cloud-computing sector to chase her lifelong dream of becoming a game developer. Now, five years past that initial pitch, with active development on “Stonehearth” winding to a somewhat-unexpected halt, while Dee and her peers at Radiant Entertainment remain proud of the game that a half-decade of deep exertion wrung out, she said that making their dream game proved to be a lot more arduous than they expected. She compares the experience to a graph of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a now-famous psychological phenomenon that states that those of humble ability have a tendency to severely overestimate their competence when compared to the average.
“We were definitely on the left side of that curve,” Dee said, laughing. “It wasn’t until December of 2013, after months of development, that we realized, ‘Oh no.’ It was our first game. We thought we could do it, but we found out later it was totally impossible. If you look at the Kickstarter pitch for ‘Stonehearth,’ it’s something like a ‘sandbox RTS, RPG, city-builder.’ Well, it turns out that’s actually a lot of different genres, and games, and as you work on a game, you get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t, and you have to change it to accommodate that.”
As an example, Dee points to the blueprint’s original conception of character classes, which split them into two different types – passive, who pilot themselves according to occasional input, and active, who rely entirely on the player’s direct control, similar to a unit in a strategy game. After a few months of iteration, however, Radiant realized that the player-operated classes required too much micromanagement for a game of “Stonehearth’s scale, and they eventually cut them from the design scheme.
To Dee’s mind, Radiant should’ve applied this sort of exacting, merciless logic to several other aspects of the game early in development, but they were afraid of abandoning their colossal scope to make these tough decisions until very late in the day. “I was super ambitious,” said Dee. “I thought we could do all these things, but in the end, games aren’t about 20 things, they’re about doing a small number of things really well. You focus on the ‘core loop,’ which is the 80% of the game that’s going to be amazing. The other 20% is the awesome stuff that supports the experience, but it’s ultimately about that 80%.”
In retrospect, Dee said that despite their technical expertise from a variety of industries, Radiant unwittingly checked off several of the fundamental missteps that maim the fathomless ambitions of many first-time indie developers. While some of them were rather avoidable, such as the decision to make their own engine – a costly and time-intensive proposition, even for experienced developers – as Dee recalls, the very seed what made “Stonehearth” unique remained rather muddy even years into the project.
“When you look at the games that inspired us, like ‘Dwarf Fortress,’ or what became ‘Rimworld,’ these games seem to contain everything – you build, you trade, you farm,” she said. “It takes a long time to tell what really makes these games excellent. What I’ve only recently come to understand, after spending a lot of time talking to people who spent their entire lives making simulation games, is that any sim, like ‘SimCity’ or ‘The Sims,’ aren’t good until you have a significant number of features in. It’s the orchestra of all the simulations together that makes a sim good. Which is also why simulation games are really hard to make.”
About two years into “Stonehearth’s” development-cycle, Dee recalls taking a break from a hectic day to watch a video titled “How to Make A Video Game” authored by the acclaimed YouTube channel Extra Credits. A freeze-frame in that contains a list of video game genres, sorted by how easy they are to make. “And, I remember looking at it, and it starts at racing game and ends with RTS. Simulation games aren’t even in the top 10, they’re off the bottom of the list. I thought, ‘Oh, jeez, that explains a lot.’ I wish we had known that. We thought, ‘Oh, we made virtualization software that allowed the cloud to happen, which revolutionized the entire internet. How hard can it be to make a game like ‘Stonehearth?’ Well, the answer is really, really hard.”
Though Dee’s frank recognition of the harsh realities of game development can verge on self-flagellation at times, by many of the usual measures, “Stonehearth” remains a success. Outside of a small-but-vocal contingent of disgruntled Kickstarter backers who loudly insist that Radiant never quite fulfilled the heady promises of that first pitch, Steam reviews for the game have stayed at a respectable 78%, or “mostly positive,” and the game has sold well north of 200,000 copies according to data estimator SteamSpy.
Still, the circumstances of the game’s final release has raised some eyebrows. Radiant was acquired by megacorp Riot Games in 2016 – best-known as the team behind money factory “League of Legends” – and Dee is clear in affirming that the studio’s purchase had a not-insignificant impact on the hard decision to cease development. According to her, a leadership transition led to Riot reassessing all of its projects, and, as a smaller indie, the team was told to make a limited timeline for the project and stick to it, which made the last six months of development rather raucous, as the former Radiant struggled to make the game all it could be. Though she said it’s essentially “impossible” to know whether or not Radiant would’ve continued work on “Stonehearth” if they hadn’t sold the company, Dee said in an ideal world, her and many members of the team would’ve been comfortable working on the game in some form or fashion for the rest of their natural lives.
“Honestly, there were many members of the team who were working far below their market rate,” she said. “We all loved it, so, of course, you can get by on ramen, but sometimes people have mortgages. It was a time and a place where we could make it work, but there were several members of the team who said they could sense a life transition coming up for themselves, and it would’ve been very expensive to replace them all. That’s a natural factor, and it’s a part of game development…You can afford to do your passion thing for a little while, but sometimes you’ve gotta make sure your kids go to school.”
Overall, as Dee and a skeleton crew finalize the very last version of “Stonehearth” for release this December, she said that the game is now in the hands of the community. Besides a variety of much-requested bug-fixes, the patch surfaces several aspects of the game that fan-modders have never had access to. “I think that the legacy of the game is a legacy of love,” she said. “About 20 people poured love – and expertise, and passion, and skill, and humor, and tears – but mostly love into this game and its codebase. The fact you can unzip the game and see its core files, and the fact that it’s so moddable, means that we hope the game passes forward to the people who would love to keep working on it. I hope a whole bunch of people have a first game creation experience with it, just as we had as developers. I want them to pass that forward. ‘Stonehearth’ was hard, but it stirred my soul, and I hope that whatever I do next will have a fraction of that.”
“Making games is hard,” she said, “but it’s worth it.”