Game developers of all sizes work on projects that for one reason or another get abandoned. Sometimes the projects just fall flat of original intentions or outside factors force a shutdown. In some cases, these projects act as warning signals and shape the way the company works, or open new doors.
Jack Claw was a project here at Frozenbyte that took a while to incubate and even longer to foster, just to be shut down two years later when the reality hit us in the face, despite the game showing a lot of promise.
Having finished Shadowgrounds in late 2005, the team was ready to conquer the world. It felt like we had so much potential that we shouldn't waste it on something boring or similar to Shadowgrounds. Instead, we wanted to go big and make the best damn game ever. So our plans were ambitious, and when a "blockbuster" game concept evolved, we wouldn't take no for an answer or settle for a modest budget. We knew we wanted to get to consoles and to make that happen we needed at least a few million dollars. And then we started asking for 8-10 million dollars. Publishers were certainly interested, but it started to become obvious that the most interested ones did not have even a fraction of the money we needed, and the ones who had the cash did not have the faith in us as a team.
We couldn't agree on the way forward. Some wanted to keep at it and some wanted to cut down the budget despite the enormous hit it could cause to the concept. Tensions started to mount. After heated arguments, we made the dramatic decision to put the project to rest – and hopefully save the company in the process. Scrapping a project of this size also made restructuring the company inevitable and, frankly, some people just simply wanted to leave.
At this time there was a small side project going on simultaneously: Trine. We did not have high expectations, but we chose it as our new main direction because it had a clear path to release. As a project, it was close to what we had made before, unlike Jack Claw, which trod on so much unfamiliar territory.
Trine, after many design revisions and schedule delays, ended up being the game that would eventually define Frozenbyte as a company. In hindsight, everything went well. Trine was successful and we're doing better than ever.
But there was always a little piece of our history missing. The ghost of Jack Claw haunted the minds and corridors of the studio. When visitors came in and saw the posters and art for Jack, they would always ask, "When do we get to see more of that? It looks awesome." And the answer was always a simple, "Yes, it was awesome, but sadly you will never see it finished."
But, actually, for Jack Claw the story is not over. As we started thinking of something cool to do for Frozenbyte’s 10th anniversary, a "pay what you want" campaign quickly rose to the top of the list. We got in touch with the Humble Bundle guys and the rest is history. We re-released Jack Claw as a part of the Humble Frozenbyte Bundle.
It's all there: the art assets, the source code, the level editor and a lot of art to build upon. The game is in the same state it was when we last presented it to publishers at Game Connection in December 2007. That was a while ago but the game has stood time rather well. With the release of the prototype, we had closure of sorts – Jack Claw is now public and everybody can see what we’d worked on during those years. We were very proud of the game at the time, and still think it's a cool concept.
As far as game ideas and prototypes go, I'm not aware of any that have been opened up to the community like Jack Claw. A lot of games now had their source code freely released, but only long after they were commercially successful, with the effect of expanding their life spans. Some games have been built with the community voting on the different aspects, including their design. But these projects are different from what we intend to do with Jack Claw.
That’s because we see the opportunity for a unique experiment in crowdsourcing. The possibility for fans to truly get to work on the game gets the butterflies going in our guts. Getting too excited at this point might be a bit premature, since a ton of projects like this have gone up in flames at the starting line, so we are realistic in our hopes. But why shouldn't it work? Either way, we feel that it is as important for us to be part of this project as a catalyst as it is for the community to be the machine.
As for plans, means and ideas on how to continue from this point on, we are having lots of different discussions on the Frozenbyte forums. A nice conversation has already spurred up and very active participants are taking leading roles. On top of this we have our friends at Alternative Games, who did some of our Linux and Mac ports, working further to help guide the community in the right direction.
To be clear, we will be financially contributing to this project and we’ll have people answering questions and actively taking part in the community. Of course we might feel like hiring some of the community members along the way, but Jack will still remain totally a community-based project. We might also want to encourage some aspects of the project along with competitions, but for now we have decided that we want to keep Jack Claw as a non-commercial project.
Fairly soon, we – by which I mean the community – will start actual work, but until then there are some basic hurdles we have to overcome. Setting up a motivational workflow system to turn chaos into order is on top of that list and clearly the foundation for creating a stable working environment. Another issue is the fact that we haven't decided on a storyline yet. In a sense we have a clear direction and a lot of conceptual ideas, but how do we make that into a finalised plan that everyone likes? These and many more other questions have yet to be answered, but hopefully the forum hive mind will work its magic and we’ll get some clarity in the weeks to come.
In the coming months I will outline our progress here, and discuss the challenges the project goes through. Hopefully there's something here to be learned for other developers too, whether it be inspiration or just a motivational pat on the back.
See and follow this column on our Jack Claw topic page.