Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Caffeine God

Years ago we dropped out of college and started a game company.  We set deadlines for our first release and hit them more or less.  The game was a moderate success.  Excited by our success our publisher secured a license to the alpha code for the DOOM engine before anyone else and convinced us to write a shooter with it.  Never mind that we weren't really interested in shooters.  Had no experience with shooters.  Sure we could do it!  To make matters worse the engine was dated and for the game to turn a profit we had to beat a major studio with a triple A title to market for our venture to be profitable.  Keep in mind we were just two guys working out of my friend's parent's house.  Did I mention we were only getting 3000 a month to develop this thing?  Our publisher chose a release date and the grind began.


To any sane person it would have been obvious our goal was impossible.  We had no real budget.  We were only two guys (four by the end).  The engine was buggy.  It was incomplete.  It was clearly an unfinished experiment, rather than an actual game engine.  Our initial milestones came and went.  The publisher ratcheted up the pressure.  We were young and stupid and refused to admit to reality so we soldiered on.  In reaction to the mounting pressure we worked longer and longer hours.  Eventually we stopped sleeping altogether. Caffeine made this possible.


High doses of caffeine make you strange.  Anyone in the game biz can attest to this.  We've all spent weeks or months at a time overdosing daily on the stuff to keep the wheels of the industry turning.  40 hour days are not uncommon.  After doing this for a couple of months we started noticing something.  In the wee hours of the night when one of us was alone we kept thinking there was someone else in the room.  At first we thought it was one of the other developers.  It soon became clear however that it was an imaginary presence brought on by the paranoia from the caffeine.  It was very unsettling.  But then we got used to it.  And eventually began to talk to it.  We would ask it questions.  We'd ask it to look at this or that thing as we completed parts of the game.  Toward the end we were leaving it offerings of food and drink - usually pizza and mountain dew.  Religions start this way.

The game was finally released.  A year late.  The buzz around the engine was gone.  Our savings were gone.  Our patience was gone.  At least the game was finished.  It was over.  We released a commercial game on a budget of only 30,000 dollars in 24 months that was intended to compete with Duke Nuke 'em.  It was an abysmal failure. When it was all over and I was finally able to stop drinking so much caffeine I felt a profound sense of loss.  Not only had our dream of starting a successful game company been shattered but the presence was gone.  Our long time invisible friend had vanished.