So Chronicles of Elyria is dead in the water. Or… wait, that’s not actually accurate; let me start again. Chronicles of Elyria has admitted that it’s dead in the water, something that has been obvious to a lot of people since roughly the moment it was announced with all of its crazy ambitions. This announcement has come without an iota of apology or understanding but instead still has that attitude of the face of the project still serving as hype man. “We’ve still got something coming! We laid everyone off and have no money from fans or investors, but we’ve done so much work, it can’t be for nothing, right?”
Wrong. It can absolutely be for nothing.
Next week I will do a deeper dive into the failures of this particular project, but today I want to start off by talking a little bit about the project as it presented itself and how it fits into a larger framework because… well, there’s stuff to be angry about when it comes to this one. But there’s also a lesson to be learned, and it’s right there in the header. Ambition is nice, but it ain’t the same as delivering your dang game.
Let’s be clear, “ambition” was not the only problem at work with Chronicles of Elyria. You can see a lot of the other things wrong with it right from the “we’re shutting down everything” post, which spends most of its runtime praising the team and only languidly gets to “we’re shutting down” at the very end as if it were a footnote instead of the main event. This is burying the lede like an inexperienced mafia enforcer trying desperately to shovel dirt over Jimmy Hoffa’s shallow resting space knowing someone’s going to find this guy, like, tomorrow.
But ambition is what the game was sold on. Literally, this was a game charging thousands of dollars to let people be a pretend regent, with the promise that there would be systems in place to make this a totally functional system with support and mechanical elements and so forth. And wherever it wound up, I do genuinely believe that the people in charge of this project started with an intent to make this game exist.
The thing is that ambition is a liar. It shows you something delightful and asks why no one has tried to do this without letting you know that the answer is that it’s really hard to do.
That’s an element often overlooked. It’s rare that the reason something isn’t done is that it truly cannot be done from a programming standpoint. Far more often, games back away from doing something because it’s either not fun to play with or because it’s massively expensive compared to the rate of return for spending that time on something else. And as much as an ambitious plan catches your eye and make you think about how fun something would be, the whole purpose of design and refinement is that some of that ambition needs to be trimmed down.
Many of the games that have stuck with perpetual crowdfunding have backed away from investors because the investors wanted to actually change something about the development. This is framed as not wanting to compromise on a studio’s ideals, to be absolutely firm on delivering your vision of the game to players!
Except… well… have you ever noticed that these stories either end with the game not being delivered at all, or possibly worse, still winding up in a compromised form anyway because the developers ran out of money and needed to deliver something?
Chronicles of Elyria is, in many ways, a snapshot of exactly this problem. You can see it right in the game’s history, a series of compromises and half-measures. You even get this particular gem in the midst of the aforementioned “we’ve run out of money and we’re shutting down” letter:
“This left our backers feeling a bit alienated and ignored. So in November of last year we hired a new producer and split the company into two teams: The Core Game Team, still focused on the Alpha 1 adventuring mechanics, and the Online Experiences team, focused on the Alpha 2 mechanics.
“The plan was to let each team make forward progress in parallel, releasing a public, playable demo to the community every four months, staggered by two months. The Core Game Team was going to ship playable, testable experiences related to the above adventuring mechanics, while the Online Experiences team was going to focus on shipping web experiences that enabled testing and validating the kingdom management, land management, economy, settlement management, and other Alpha 2 mechanics.”
But at last you didn’t have investors forcing you to compromise your vision, right? Instead, you had… lack of money compromising your vision. Because holding on tight to that ambition was holding so tightly to an idea that it didn’t actually materialize and the concept that you’d rather fail at delivering anything than succeed at delivering something.
Ambition is expensive. Ambition costs a lot of money. Ambition can often run into technical limitations that make it difficult or impossible to do certain things that the developers really want to have in the game. Ambition, in other word, is the opposite of actually getting things done; it’s short of a playable game by one full game’s worth of content and mechanics.
Oh, and let’s not forget that all that ambition doesn’t actually assure you that when all is said and done you’ll actually have a game anyone wants to play. I’m sure we can all think of at least one game designer who is well known for having wildly ambitious design goals that never actually materialize into a game that people find fun to play.
The idea of never having to compromise your vision is an appealing one, but it loses sight of the idea that compromising your vision can often be what helps lead you to positive locations. It leads to taking a solid look at your overall vision and realizing what parts are actually vital, what elements make this unique and interesting and something worth playing, and what parts are… well, ambitious, but not really helping the core game out and not explaining to investors or players why this is something special.
Speaking as someone who has worked in a creative field for more than a decade, I know my history is filled with compromised visions. Sometimes it’s due to editorial changes I didn’t get a voice in. Sometimes it’s due to things I argued against but ultimately had to do anyhow. Sometimes it’s due to my own lack of ability. Sometimes it’s just down to time, even – when you need an article out by Monday and you don’t have a chance to write after Thursday, you have to compromise what you might have wanted to write to get your piece finished.
And the vast majority of the times, those compromises were fine. They didn’t actually make things worse. Many times they made things better. And they resulted in all of these projects actually seeing the light of day instead of sitting unfinished because I refused to compromise one inch, because my ambition couldn’t be constrained by things like objective reality.
Perfect is the opposite of done, as they say.
We ultimately cannot judge whether Chronicles of Elyria would have been a great game because it’s never going to be an anything. It’s been shuttered, however much hope there might be for dusting things off and resurrecting the project. But just like the Wayne Gretzky quote about missing all the shots you don’t take, your unreleased prototype of a game is never going to measure up to an actual released game.
All your ambition is no substitute for releasing a playable game. A playable game can be good, bad, need work, have positive elements. But a half-finished tech demo? Ultimately, that just means that all we have to judge your work by is… nothing. And that’s when all that ambition is ultimately a hollow pursuit.