These are the days when your job isn’t much fun: When you report sad news in the MMOverse. Today’s unhappy announcement is that the sandbox Origins of Malu is suspending all development indefinitely. I’ve personally been following, reporting on, and streaming Origins of Malu since my first interview with devs in 2011, and it’s been quite a roller-coaster ride since then. Those who rooted for the game have followed it through three different engines, changes in developers, delays, a name change, and Steam Early Access as a battleground. There was much promise in that world.
The good news is that all is not lost! You might have noticed that I did not say that OoM was canceled or shutting down; I only said that development was suspended. There is still hope on the horizon that the game will be completed. What is necessary for the wheel of development to start turning again is the introduction of an investor into the mix. The reality is that Burning Dog Media simply cannot continue to self-finance the endeavor out of the developers’ own pockets.
I sat down with Michael Dunham, senior producer and studio founder, in this exclusive interview to talk about what happens now, the future plans for Origins of Malu, and other projects the studio has in the works.
There is no question that developing a MMO — let alone an open-world sandbox — takes a sizeable chunk of cash. In the case of small indie developers, that cash usually starts coming out of their own pockets. In the case of Burning Dog, the money for the entire process for all these years has always come directly from the pockets of the team members. Everything that they did, from writing to art to coding, was done pro bono in their spare time; not a single person got paid. Even the cost of the servers initially came out of personal pockets. Dunham himself bankrolled the project for seven years, taking on extra jobs to keep the dream going. After the Early Access sales, Dunham told me, money was able to go into engine licensing and servers, but it did not completely cover expenses. How can one man or a small team fund the development of a robust MMO? It can’t — not an ordinary person at least. (If you are a multi-millionaire and want to try, chances are looking much better for you!)
Since life and real jobs continue to go on, the answer then is to get investors on board. The good news is that the team has been actively working on this issue. The bad news is that nothing has fit yet. Either investors want to take over complete control of everything or they do not want to jump in until the game already has significant profit and players. Obviously, that last part is a bit of a Catch-22 as players and profit cannot come until the game is finished and out there. The team pushed on for as long as possible on it own and got the game this close to being done, but Dunham says needs more bulk content and engine licensing and servers must continue to be paid for. And for some crazy reasons, devs need to pay for housing, food, and other such things.
And that’s what’s led to the suspension of development until investors are actually adding cash flow into development. The team is currently in talks with different investors, and once some are on board, work on Origins of Malu will resume!
Virgil Davis, technical art lead, wrote an explanatory letter to give players insight into all the details of the situation. We share that letter here.
Greetings everyone. You may have heard already, or will hear directly the details soon regarding Burning Dog’s suspension of the development on Origins of Malu. I’ll be leaving the specifics of that announcement to the big boss man and instead will go over something of a summary and postmortem on our development on Malu, attempting to explain and frame our decision and path as best I can. I’ll start by covering what progress we’ve made, then go into the major barriers in our path and wrap up with what is in store for the future.
So to begin, despite this suspension, we have had a long and fruitful journey in the development of Malu. We survived three engine changes, we developed a wealth of lore, a robust library of art, assets and code, and did so on a negative budget. We have much to be proud of in our development. We were invited to one of the main floors at PAX 2012, people enjoyed the sample demo we arranged, we had a small partnership with Dell and Alienware, and made good friends and contacts with representatives of several other companies whilst stumping for our game. We developed an active combat system, a player housing system and built a large world that had it reached it’s end, would have been vast and instance-less, with territory fought over and staked out by our players. We got greenlit on Steam, made an Early Access build and kept improving and adding to it as best we could. Much was done and in complete honesty, Origins was nearly finished as a complete system, mostly requiring just additional content in bulk. This is a lot accomplished. With pride, I am glad to say I was a part of it and everyone on the Burning Dog team feels much the same way. What we managed to do without a publisher, without investors, without much system support of any kind was an amazing feat. In a brutal industry, that grinds up indies and projects by the dozens and hundreds every day, we managed to push forward past all adversity to this point. So, if we had accomplished all of this, why is Origins being suspended?
Boiling down our troubles, in my opinion, it comes to a head on three major points: funding, scope, and time. Long time readers (or those trawling through the archives) of my dissertations will note that I mention funding, money and the lack of it a lot. Even to me, it sounds like I’m beating a dead horse. However, its still the number one factor and issue with our progress. Our boss man has been self-funding the Origins development out of his own pocket for the better part of a decade. A decent chunk of his paycheck from another job went towards servers, licenses, websites and other overhead during the long development of Origins. Basically all of us developers and artists working on Origins were doing so without pay of any kind. We continued to work on Origins because we believed so strongly in it, and with the hope that once ‘it made it’ that we would be compensated for all our years of work and labor we’ve poured into it. However, this lack of money was a huge hindrance in every sense imaginable. Without money we were less important to software companies whos support would have been crucial to Origin’s development, and thus were often not given the time of day, or were given cursory promises that never panned out because they ignored or dismissed us. Without money to pay all of us developers, we had an atrocious turnover which resulted in loss of work, loss of experience, loss of time and the loss of professional or veteran labor help. People need to pay rent, and people need to eat. Being a developer on Origins would help with neither of those in the short term, sad as that may be. Even some of our most stringent and diehard coworkers who in better times would’ve stayed on and continued their work had to walk away because they needed to dedicate themselves fully to a paying job. Acquiring investors was a huge hurdle, because while most were very enthused and supportive of our goals, vision and work, they would not commit to investing capital into us until we were further progressed. The ironic thing is that we needed the funding to be further progressed. Crowdfunding was an option, and one we were openly exploring for a long time, but with some of the formats being a zero-sum setup – requiring you to meet your funding goal or no funds at all, and with all of our efforts to court investors directly, we lost out on our attempts at that path. The few investors who were actually willing to put money down, wanted to do so with draconian contract terms and stipulations. Smaller amounts than what we needed, for a massive controlling stake and nullification of the shares that us developers accrued over our time working on Origins up to that point. A devils bargain by any definition methinks, and one we had to refuse.
The scope was another major point of consternation. An MMORPG is an audacious undertaking by any imagination. A first-time indie developer studio made MMORPG was downright Sisyphean in scope. All of our major pillars added to that challenge: massive open world with no instances and tens if not hundreds of thousands of concurrent players. An active combat system with projectiles, spells, dodging and quick fluid movement. A level-less character progression system. A player building system for structures of all sorts. An elaborate crafting system integrated into all of the above. All of these pillars, and the game genre itself was a massive challenge. We were put to the task and did the best that we could but as of right now, it has the best of us. Tying back to my first point, funding would go a long way to blasting through this roadblock, but again, the size of the scope makes gaining that funding a challenge all on its own. Additionally, though we are something like 70-80% complete on those pillars, the last bits would be fairly tough all on their own and as I’ve said before, generating all of the additional content within the world supported by those pillars would take just as much time and labor as creating the systems did. Were Burning Dog an already established studio, with a revenue stream, a full time team of developers and several titles under their collective belts, such a scope would be much more feasible and could have been accomplished in a much shorter timeframe.
Time has also played a huge factor in why we’ve decided to suspend our development. Origins of Malu was first conceptualized and pre-produced about a decade ago. Looking back to that time, roughly 2006ish, it would have been a novel and groundbreaking game. All the pillars of the development I described above hadn’t really been put together that much in the gaming scene. Had it dropped into the market right then and there I imagine it would have done quite well, even with some faults. Every delay, every lost labor, every change wrought by our other problems and issues though, added to the clock of development. As time progressed other studios and companies realized the potential of the pillars (not from us, but just from seeing the gaming trends in general) and started development on their own versions. The open world survival games, the bulk of the sandbox genre, the active combat MMORPGs, they’ve all been produced on a large scale and there is a glut of them in the market. What would have been new or unique 10 years ago is old hat now. What could have attracted additional support and funds had we been where we are now, 5 years ago, is trite and mundane. What we could put out a few years ago would have been enough, but as time goes on, you have to develop more perfectly and flawlessly a game, otherwise you are just running with the pack and have nothing to stand out with. I still feel our combination of these game mechanics, aesthetics and IP would have been unique enough to warrant a decent go of it, but business ventures feel otherwise.
Not all is doom and gloom, however. Origins may be on ice, but it is not yet dead. The work, assets and labor poured into it are still there. Technically we do have a working game, as evidenced by the players of our Early Access, but it is not the game we want to bring to the world, nor would it be at that level in the near foreseeable future. On the subject of Burning Dog, we will still exist as a studio and will still be doing game development. We just have to change tactics and scope way down. Produce smaller, more limited games, get some revenue, get a solid paid workforce, get some heft to the studio and in time, revisit Origins and see what we can do. We’ve attempted something like this in the past, but we never stopped our Origins development. This was another mistake. By working on Origins and on side projects our attention and limited resources were further strained and diffused, made far less effective if directed towards a singular goal and project. We didn’t have it in our hearts to stop developing for Origins. We’ve reached a point where it just simply has to happen though, and so we’ll being going after these newer smaller scope projects with the same fervor we had for Origins. We have assets, code and experience with development behind us, and with a far narrower development, I feel we can put out some decent, enjoyable, quality games that can help get us on solid footing. Additionally we do have some investment potential on the horizon, though ironically or not, it isn’t for developing a game, but a piece of software. You take what you can get though, especially when it can lead to paycheck and continued development on your passion piece.
I and the rest of the Burning Dog team are deeply and sincerely grateful for all the support we’ve had from fans and players over the years of development. It is my hope that we can be as quick in developing other titles and as successful as we can in those endeavors to get back to Origins as fast as possible, for us and for you. The status of our current Early Access will be addressed by our boss in his own statement, as will any further details on our future work. Thank you all again for your love and support, through all of our adversity and trials, with luck and hard work, I hope to have better news very soon.
Anyone visiting Steam now might notice that the game is no longer for sale. That makes sense when you are suspending development. But what about those players who have recently bought into the Early Access looking forward to the full MMO? Dunham explained that the team is weighing ideas, including keeping the servers up on Steam for a period of time or going free-to-play. Although the servers have been up for a year with players playing on them, he emphasized that he really wanted to do right by folks. Dunham stressed that although the studio doesn’t get specific information on purchasers, “If you feel like you’ve been ripped off, we will try to work with Steam to work things out.” Just contact the devs.
Burning Dog lives on with new projects
When an indie game goes poof, folks often expect the studio to go poof as well. However, Burning Dog is in it for the long haul. Dunham spoke about how the team is not giving up and how there are other plans already in the works. He explained that all the art, animations, and vast amounts of lore are all done, and there’s a new initiative right now that utilizes this work. Players should know that the story will persist, even if the game does not right now. “We are not going to let the Malu world die,” he stated. “The IP is still very much alive.” Are there any hints as to the direction of these plans? Dunham wouldn’t share many details, saying, “We’re not going to announce the next project until it is basically ready to ship.” However, he did share that Burning Dog has nabbed a high-placed employee from a well-known, legacy triple-A studio for work on the current project. The who and the what, however, are going to be kept under wraps until the project is basically ready to launch.
Dunham emphasized that the team hopes that by focusing on these other projects that can get out the door and start bringing in profits, more investors will want to look into them. Additionally, profits from other projects can be used to further OoM development. As Dunham put it, “You just can’t make a proper MMO in unreal without tons of money and tons of time.” So hopefully the new projects will bring in money, and even buy more time. And maybe then we can cheer return of Origins of Malu.