Siege of Stormhaven

Making Indie Games in the 90's

1994 – 1998


Siege of Stormhaven
Siege of Stormhaven
Siege of Stormhaven
Siege of Stormhaven

The Project

Siege of Stormhaven was a computer role playing game. I worked with my brother and a few friends to develop it for the publisher Mindscape.

One Christmas in the early 90's my brother and I conspired to get out of our boring day jobs. We wanted to make video games. He was a programmer and I had been a pixel artist in the demoscene. I had also grown up playing tabletop role playing games and drawing for gaming fanzines. It was going to take a lot of work but it wasn't far-fetched.

In the early days the UK video games industry drew much of it's talent from the demoscene. Everyone in our demo crew had ended up making games. By the mid 90's I had worked on some smaller games and we had a few friends in the industry. We had been kicking around the ideas for Siege of Stormhaven since 1989. It was time to go all in.

My brother and I travelled to London for the European Computer Trade Show (ECTS). This was a European forerunner to E3. I pitched our game concept to a lot of companies before we signed a publishing deal with Mindscape/SSI. We founded a company The Reality Gap with a few of our friends, and we got to work.

What I worked on

I had the role of Creative Director but in any small company you wear a lot of hats. My principle responsibilities were for the game design and for art direction.

Game Design is the myriad of decisions that dictate the vision for the game. I found myself creating concept art. Writing technical documentation for game mechanics and a multi-threaded narrative. It was so much fun to innovate with new RPG systems for character development, combat and spells.

Art Direction amounted to a lot of graphics work for me. We did outsource some of it to people we knew, but the majority fell on my shoulders. Part way through development we moved from 8 bit to 16 bit. I'm glad we did it because it looked so much better, but it was a huge amount of work.

What I learned

Quality not quantity. I remember seeing Richard Garriot at ECTS and having a fanboy moment. Richard was the creator of Ultima, the big computer RPG of the mid 90's. Ultima had a large world rendered at low resolution. This was a design decision bound to the storage constraints of early computers. We faced similar constraints. Our innovation was to render a smaller game world (the city of Stormhaven) at a higher resolution. Setting a story within a besieged city gave us a distinctive game world. and a much richer level of detail and interaction than any other RPG of the time.

Quantity improves quality. If you want to get good at something, do it a lot. I was an okay illustrator before I worked on fanzines. After seven issues, I got pretty good. By the end of our game I was creating digital artwork to a very professional standard. I had mastered all sorts of pre-Photoshop 2D tooling as well as Autodesk Animator and 3D Studio Max.

Nothing is impossible when you are young. The superpowers of youth are optimism and energy. Naivety brings fresh eyes to a problem, and youth has the energy and time to do the work. Contrast that with middle age. You have more experience but way less time and energy.

Ride the bear. In the decades before Steam, small developers had to work with big publishers. We got lucky. Mindscape were very good to us. But we were always a little ship in a big pond. It seems bizarre now but the gaming market was in a bit of slump in 1998. Mindscape sold to another publisher. They stopped all European work and after three years of development our project came to an abrupt end.

Look after your mental health. I've always been quite stoic but this was a period of massive highs and lows.

I had focussed completely on the dream of becoming a game designer. When that actually happened, I quit my day job and the halo of euphoria lasted about a week. A weird sense of disorientation followed. It seemed so far-fetched, I hadn't allowed myself to consider what success might look like.

Having our game canned after three years of development was a bummer. We tried to sell it into other publishers but in that market, no one wanted to take a risk on an unproven team. I turned thirty about the same time so I took a year out. I went to Mexico. Had a lot of fun and got back on the horse in late 1998. I sold my flat, moved to London and took a job in this new thing called the web.