Abram Jablonski is a Senior Software Engineer/Architect that specializes in highly-dynamic data-driven applications. He has been developing software for over 15 years now in the Department of Defense and commercial sectors, and has been involved with numerous projects related to the implementation or support of high-tech systems. As his first full-scale (but still very indie) commercial venture, he is developing a new 4X game in partnership with legendary Star Wars author Timothy Zahn.

Returning to Orion

by Abram Jablonski

I’ve always loved Master of Orion. Even before I started programming, I’ve wanted to do something similar. The original was great, and I’m one of the smaller percentage of people that think it was even better than the sequel (apparently, nobody really liked the third one). I’ve got the original on my laptop right now – a $6 copy I got from GOG.com and that I run on DOSBox – and I’ve still got a dog-eared copy of the instruction booklet from when I first bought the game, too.

Wanting to make that game has been something that I’ve carried with me for more than a decade and a half now. Jotting down notes, tables, sketches, diagrams and lists of things for the game, but for most of that time I didn’t have the right skills and tools to actually complete it. If that had been all I had focused on for a couple of years, I would have been able to do it, but I wouldn’t have actually been ready, because there are a lot of things that just take time to truly understand (as opposed to only learning them). I did write other stuff, though: from little utilities, to highly-dynamic data-handling architectures, to software that was run at different sites all over the world to field test a globe-spanning system. And it’s been fun, and challenging, and rewarding.

But when I finally put out a little app for Windows and Android, which took a couple of months of my spare time, it beat all of that, hands-down. Relatively speaking, the number of total downloads was small: 20,000 or so downloads, and only half the people really played the game more than once. But that’s still 10,000 people, seeing my game, playing it and deciding that they wanted it. Not needing it like most of the software I’d written, but making a choice to keep playing it, and it was a completely different – and completely rewarding – experience.

Originally, this game was intended to be a side project, and I expected to take years to complete it, because there was so much I wanted to include. There were a couple of aliens I really liked (Timothy Zahn’s Modhri and Zhirrzh, primarily) and, rather than put in cheap imitations, I got with Tim’s agent and asked for permission to include the originals. When Tim heard about it, he was intrigued: he’s a bit of a world-builder himself, he said, and maybe he could provide some input.

And that’s when everything changed, because I realized that the game I was planning on making was a shadow of the game I should be making.

Yeah, I was planning to do a lot of cool new things but they were all on the technical/ gameplay side of things, and I had completely overlooked a lot of possibilities – possibilities that would make it a much richer and more interesting game. And the thing is, Tim didn’t even offer any suggestions at that point: simply asking myself “What would Tim’s fans expect out of a game he was involved with?” implied a lot of other cool new things that I suddenly HAD to put in, like richer dialogue and multi-game-spanning mysteries to discover.

It also implied a couple of other things. In order to do it properly and in a reasonable amount of time, I needed to be completely focused on it, which meant quitting my job and spending something like 60 hours per week on it. It’s a good job that’ll be hard to leave (great team, good pay, and interesting work) but the alternative to quitting was having, at best, 20 or so hours per week, and not being able to give my full attention to the thing I most wanted to create.

In order to quit my job though, I needed funding, so getting a Kickstarter together seemed like the best choice. The other option – teaming up with an established game shop – meant I would probably not be in control of the vision, and it would be their game to mangle if they so chose.

So here we are. We’ve got the Kickstarter running, and we’ve got some interest and a good group of very-excited backers that want to help refine all the details for the game. That last part is actually something I took from Agile Development: if you get your users (players) involved right from the beginning, you can give them the software they want instead of the software you think they want. Or even the software they say they want, which is almost never what they actually want and need. Basically, I have a lot of little pieces of code that I’ve written, and I’m going to tweak them and connect them all together once we, as a community, decide how something should actually behave.

In fact, even the intro video (which is going to be the intro for the game) is still a draft, because we’re going to include a lot of the player-created races in it. So we can’t finalize it until we have those races well-defined.

We do have some samples, though, right at the top of the Kickstarter page (in the Extra Stuff section): everything from the concept document to a cool little prototype 3D solar system generator that I’ve spent literally hours on end staring at and playing with. But I also spent hours playing with the code that will read in a layout file and draw everything on the screen (so we can add themes later), so maybe that’s just something I’m prone to do.

If you have any questions for Tim or the rest of the team, visit Tim’s Facebook page: he’s got a post specifically devoted to those, and we also have a dedicated Parallax page where we’ll be sharing news and information. If this article has piqued your interest, please check out the Kickstarter, think about what you’d like to see in the game (or if you’d just like to play it), and join us as a member of our backer community.

Thanks!

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