Shattered Earth Closed Alpha Playtest

Shattered Earth is the new tabletop skirmish game from Massive Awesome, and we are looking for a few good men and women to help us make it the best game it can be. Alpha is the point during development where the rules are functionally complete, and the refinement and balancing work can begin. The Closed Alpha playtest will include access to our private forum, where you can download the latest rules and discuss the game directly with the design team.

If you would like to take part in the Closed Alpha playtest, and help to shape the future of Shattered Earth, hit the Sign Up button above and fill in your details. As this is a closed playtest, sign-ups will only be available for a short period of time, so make sure you register early to avoid disappointment.

If you are part of a club and would like to run your own field test for Shattered Earth, please email us directly at [email protected] and let us know the name of your club, where you are based, and how many people you would like to take part.

See you out there, survivors.

Welcome to SHATTERED EARTH

Shattered Earth - Logo

Earth, 50 years from now. An unprecedented series of seismic events, gigantic earthquakes, and terrifying volcanic eruptions have reformed the continents. Within a few years, the world became unrecognizable, the landmasses torn apart and altered in a way that meant life for its remaining inhabitants had irrevocably changed.

As humanity’s survivors form new alliances and fight over scant resources, they must harness the power of Ether, a mysterious and frightening new energy source bleeding into our world from the realm of dreams and nightmares – and they must also deal with the creatures that follow in its wake.

This is SHATTERED EARTH, the new tabletop skirmish game of wondrous technology and existential horror.

Shattered Earth - Arabic Landscape - Key Art

The old power structures of the time before the disaster were mostly dismantled during those intervening years. New agreements seemed to form and collapse with alarming regularity, but some factions have survived to stake their claim on this new world. In the currently known populated areas, there are several major human powers – and something else entirely.

Born out of a necessary co-operation between the USA and Russia, the United Nations of Mankind (UNM) are the largest of the human factions. They have the biggest population, the safest cities, and the most guns. They believe in the values that drove humanity’s evolution prior to the disaster, and seek a return to those days.

Shattered Earth - Jormungandr - Concept Art

They are opposed by the Cult of the Dragon, formed in a political coup that wiped out the Pan-Asian Alliance (PAA), and led by the charismatic Lee Kyong-Min. Their unhindered experimentation with Ether and flesh-grafting has created singular monstrosities, each one a work of grotesque genius. Though they may lack in numbers, their zeal and determination – not to mention a complete disregard for their own safety – has proven a stern challenge to any that oppose them.

But even they could not imagine what followed in the years after the Breaking of the World. Since time immemorial the Deathless have watched humanity through our own eyes. And they have shaped the thoughts and feelings of many; from gifted artists to serial killers – all have been at the whim of the beings from the realm of dreams. They are entirely alien to most of humanity, and clear motives are difficult to ascertain. Regardless of their ultimate aims, one question above all has plagued those who dare to think it: did we dream them into existence, or did we dream about them because they existed?

Welcome to 30 A.E. Welcome to SHATTERED EARTH.

Age of Sigmar is Pretty Great

I’ve been a professional video game designer for 15 years. I’ve studied countless other games, read essays and listened to talks, and continually tried to improve my craft. I’ve also been a hobby gamer for almost 30 years. In that time I’ve created my fair share of house rules, and complained loudly about many more. Hobby gaming was something I understood from the outside looking in, and I thought that my professional experience gave me a better perspective when designing rules. It turns out I was only half right: writing a war game has been like going back to school.

I’ve always believed that good game design should be a process of simplification, reducing core mechanics down to their essential components. That doesn’t necessarily mean that games should be simple, only that any complexity should derive from the interactions between rules rather than the rules themselves.

When I first read the rules for Age of Sigmar, Games Workshop’s new skirmish game set in the venerable Warhammer universe, I was pretty shocked. Only four pages long? Given that the previous edition of Warhammer is the largest rulebook I own at just over 500 pages, you can probably see why. I’d read the forum posts from other concerned gamers and echoed a lot of the same concerns myself – but none of us had actually sat down and played it yet.

Earlier this week I had a demo of the game at my local Games Workshop store. And do you know what? Four pages is apparently all you need. So whilst the title of this post may have a faint whiff of click bait about it, Age of Sigmar is actually pretty great. Yes, I still feel like there are some issues that need addressing, the most notable being the lack of composition (no matter what Jervis says, even a casual game is improved when the sides are in balance). But the core rules – the real nuts and bolts of the design – are beautifully simple. They have followed the process of simplification to the point of removing entire sections of the rules that are otherwise ubiquitous in other war games.

This idea of challenging conventions is why Age of Sigmar deserves consideration. It may not be our intention at Massive Awesome to simplify the rules to this extent – as I mentioned above, I’ve been playing war games for nearly 30 years, so a little more depth is always welcome – but there is a modern, video game design philosophy at work here. In hindsight, my career as a video game designer had clearly put me on the right path, but it took a war game to make me realise that.

Feels Like ‘Work’

At first the writing came easily, words falling onto the page almost as quickly as I could conceive and then type them. After years without a real creative outlet, I think it was just a case of opening a tap and letting them pour out. Because of the huge size and scope of the universe that we’re creating, I could look in any direction and find fertile ground to go and wander in, creating structures without fear of contradicting canon. Of course at that stage continuity wasn’t an issue as nothing had come before.

As I’ve covered in a previous blog post, I did plenty of background planning, sketching the very broad outlines for the factions and main characters, and prioritizing the best order to tackle them. This still left plenty of room in each individual piece however, enabling me to just write, sometimes for hours without needing to stop and check the details. This was also very convenient for my haphazard way of writing: ten minutes on the tram here and half an hour after the kids have gone to bed there, able to just pick up where I left off the previous time.

Now I’m covering events that interact with previous writing and characters who’s timelines need to match up with each others’. This stifles the free-flow of thoughts that characterised my earlier pieces and that is, well, annoying. I guess this is more like ‘real’ writing. It certainly feels more like work. It also lends itself to more sustained periods of preparation and writing, with each session needing ten minutes of prep time where I look at the history tracker and the short guides to get prepared. When those ten minutes are followed by an hour of writing, that’s no problem, but when they’re followed by only ten minutes of actual writing and I need to repeat the same process the next day, the ratio of time spent working versus the end product produced is getting lower.

So to combat this I guess I have a couple of options: I could just write whatever comes into my head and rework it later, editing the details on future drafts, or I could pre-plan each piece more thoroughly, plotting the points I should hit and details I should include ahead of time. I’ll probably give each one a try and see which feels right. Of course there is the third option: when stuck, save and close the fiction piece and write a blog post instead.

Foundations Laid

So now the proper work starts. Simon and I decided early on to spend much of our initial effort doing groundwork before getting to the more interesting aspects of the creative process. With him, it has been the huge task of setting up the business and sorting out myriad contracts and official bits of paperwork. For me, it has been the more mundane tasks of deciding on a process that fits around my life and schedule; where and when to write (on my iPad while travelling for the most part), how to decide what to work on next, and whether to slowly go for a first pass finished product or knock out quick, rough drafts and constantly iterate.

There are also practical decisions like how and when to best communicate with Simon, when to be proactive versus when to discuss, and whether or not to stump up the cash for professional tools that enable direct uploading to our project server. Which reminds me, Simon also had to set up our server…

I have spent a good few hours preparing faction histories, story timelines, and a master work tracker, as I know from experience that without these tools, I’ll start going in a million different directions at once. My project management background means that I definitely find splitting writing up into discrete, smaller chunks keeps focus and motivation high, and ameliorates the panic that can appear when starting out on a huge new activity.

The five Ps of Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance have always been true, and the size and complication of building a viable business from the ground up only magnifies the importance of getting your house in order and being prepared for every eventuality before getting stuck into the fun creative stuff.

Now that we have a centralised area with the ability to track work and keep a tight hold on canon, all that remains for me to do is to write tens of thousands of words of gripping, original, and exciting fiction. But that’s the easy part, right?

A New Perspective

I have always been into movies in a borderline obsessional way, staying up late watching TV, renting VHS, and eventually amassing a frankly silly DVD collection. About fifteen years ago I wanted to better understand exactly why the films of great directors – like Kurosawa, Kubrick and Hitchcock – were critically revered, and so I started to actively educate myself in cinema. I watched all the extra features, read magazines, joined forums, and bought university ‘Film Studies’ textbooks. I started to understand themes, narrative arcs, mise-en-scene, and the building blocks that went into every movie.

This understanding of the components that contribute to that nebulous ‘magical’ quality has given me an appreciation for some film-makers that I hadn’t previously understood and now I see every film in a new light (although I don’t care what the critics say: I still hate Bresson). I find myself constantly noticing clever editing tricks or lazy directorial choices and exposition. I don’t enjoy films more now that I know more about them, but I do tend to have stronger extreme feelings, so I really hate bad films and really love well made ones.

This has been on my mind recently for the first time in a decade as I am now viewing lots of things through a new ‘educated eye’. Going through the process of starting a business from scratch means that every area of my hobby is torn down to its constituent parts, evaluated and costed.

Every website I look at I am thinking about the quality of the design, every rulebook I read has me counting up the number of original art pieces and calculating in my head the cost, and with every model I handle I am evaluating the sculpt quality and the way the cuts are designed and hidden. Like with films, I find myself being drawn to the extremes: the clunky art direction and bad font choices at one end, and the delicately detailed paint jobs and cleanly and consistently designed pages of the best books at the other.

It would be nice to win the lottery and start a business without compromise; have renowned artists producing dozens of concepts, veteran sculptors sending multiple designs to be mass-produced in injection-moulded plastic, and a rulebook with original art on every expensively-designed page. But that is the end goal, not where we are now.

We have been lucky to work with some truly talented artists and sculptors, and seeing Simon’s and my ideas come to life through them has been inspiring. But now we have to make some difficult decisions about when to compromise and when to go for broke, and that is difficult for two guys who have exceptionally high standards and can’t help looking at everything through a hyper-critical eye.

The hard part isn’t producing a game, rulebook, and range of miniatures that are really good on a finite budget – I can see how we could do that if we were prepared to constantly compromise. The hard part is producing a game, rulebook, and range of miniatures on a finite budget that look like we had to make no compromises and had millions to spend.

Creative Collaboration

My professional life has never really involved being artistically create up till now. So, although I have been expecting to experience different thoughts and emotions working with Simon and our artists than when working with my colleagues in my day job, it is still a pleasant surprise to realise that we can shape the reality of the universe we are creating simply by thinking it.

Last month Simon and I were having a conversation about whether two of our factions would once have been allied and, after discussing a few pros and cons, we paused and I wondered to myself how decisions like this could be taken in an environment with no hierarchy to ask, no best-practice to implement, and no existing process to follow. Then it hit me: “Yes” I said, “They were allies a few decades earlier. Because I just said so.”

Now this decision was not Tolkien deciding that Saruman was a bad guy or George Lucas announcing that Vader was Luke’s father but, for me, it was a pivotal point in my understanding and appreciation of the creative process. It is still very early days in this project but mine and Simon’s aim is to create a successful game, based around an original IP that could conceivably one day support multiple expansions, secondary games, novels, and spin off films, so it is taking a little time getting used to the idea that I have the power to make sweeping changes to our game universe by simply having a thought and writing it down.

I had a second ‘moment’ last week while discussing the fundamental design of one of our game’s main characters with Simon and one of our artists. The discussion involved an iterative process that I now see will spiral outwards and affect the rules of the game and the fiction of the universe. The backstory I have written moulds the way the artist designs the look of the character, which gives Simon an idea for a weapon or ability that would fit particularly well, necessitating a slight rule change. That in turn gives me an idea for the character’s back-story, which is then discussed again through the prism of art, rules and story, each feeding off and influencing each other.

It is a much rewarding process and one that I am very much looking forward to continuing with for as long as possible.

Massive Ego: Images and Words

Earlier this week the first concept images appeared in our Slack team. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – I’d been anticipating this moment for several weeks and still hadn’t quite worked out how I was going to approach it. Half of me was calm and professional, the other half was screaming like a fanboy. I’ve seen many pieces of artwork for many concepts over the years, but I knew these would be different, more special somehow.

My initial thought was: ‘It’s alive!’, and then my 15 years of gaming industry experience kicked in and I began to thoroughly tear it apart… Okay, so perhaps that’s an exaggeration. The artwork was excellent, and a pleasure to review, made even more enjoyable because it was the first time either myself or John had seen our words transformed into images.

And I think that is the critical lesson I (re-)learned this week: to detach yourself from the concept enough that you can be objective, but not so much that you lose the sheer joy of it. I wrote in an earlier blog post about sometimes falling in love with the process if not necessarily the project, and I suppose I had developed a practised ease over the last few years for reviewing work. But this was different because it meant so much more to me, and I didn’t need to ‘fake’ it.

Since then we’ve had several more concepts drop into our inboxes, and the progression has been astounding. The more the concepts come to life, the more unique this universe we have created becomes. Of course, it’s all well and good me saying that in advance of our official unveiling – if the internet has taught me anything, it’s that there’s very little room for objective criticism.

There’s no harm in us keeping this to ourselves for a little while longer, is there..?

Being a Good Business Means Getting Good at Being a Business

Starting a new business is challenging and exciting in equal measure. Quite apart from the fact that you need a good idea for whatever it is you are selling in the first place, you need to get good at being a business. If you hate admin, spreadsheets, sending and responding to dozens of emails, and keeping track of every penny you spend, then you probably ought to reconsider.

But if not, here are three things you should probably keep repeating to yourself – perhaps recorded onto a Dictaphone and played back at low volume while you sleep – in order to keep things on the right track.

  1. Be smart

If you’ve ever worked in the video games industry you’ll know all about the MVP, or minimum viable product. This is generally the path of least resistance when getting a game to market, creating features that are just about good enough to be released. Being smart doesn’t deliver the minimum viable product, it delivers the maximum viable product.

You should work out as early as you can what you need to spend your money on; and I mean really spend your money on, not the things you think you should spend your money on. It can be all too easy to fall into the ‘production cycle’ trap too early, where you’re paying for a conveyor belt of work when you only really needed the first couple of pieces that came off the line.

John and I are currently debating whether or not to spend a significant amount of money on a centrepiece terrain board for the game. In isolation it would appear to be an irresponsible use of our (limited) funds, but when you factor in the usage we would get out of it – publicity shots, promotional materials, interior art for the rulebook, live gameplay demos, social media shares, word of mouth – it starts to look like a much smarter investment than simply producing more concept art.

  1. Be enthusiastic

Seriously, if you don’t love your product then you’re probably better off calling it quits now. You need to become the world’s foremost expert on whatever it is you are selling, and give people a reason to believe what you’re telling them. And yes, you can blag it! I spent the best part of 15 years creating racing video games, and do you know what? For at least 5 of those years I didn’t really enjoy playing racing games, yet the games I designed in those 5 years where the best of my career.

It doesn’t matter where that passion comes from – be it the project or the process – as long as the passion itself is genuine. Let loose, run wild, live free! At the end of the day, you can’t expect anyone else to take an interest in your product if you don’t have one yourself. And when things get tough – believe me, they will – you’ll need every ounce of that passion to get you through it.

  1. Be realistic

This should really be number one given its importance: everyone running a business needs to be realistic about their aims and ambition. I realise that most people will start a business because they want to follow their dream – that’s why I started Massive Awesome in the first place – but you need to have a realistic approach to getting there. Whatever your ultimate goal may be, the best way to approach it is to break it down into logical and manageable chunks.

In our current business plan, the ‘dream’ doesn’t become a reality until year three; that’s after the first game has launched and we’re well into the second one. Jamey Stegmaier makes the point that you shouldn’t count your Kickstarter money until you’ve fulfilled every backer’s pledge, and it’s the same principle here. Our dream doesn’t become a reality until we have proven that the business is sustainable, and we can both make a living out of it.

I know how tempting it is to rush ahead because you’re excited or you need to start making money, like, NOW, but taking the time to get things right at the start will not only save time later, it will prevent costly mistakes. You need to write a business plan with realistic aims, and create a financial plan that covers at least the next three years, and review them both regularly.

I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some very smart, very enthusiastic, and very pragmatic people over the years, and I’ve made it my business to learn from them whenever I can. We still don’t have all the answers, and I’m sure we’ll make mistakes along the way, but I feel like we’ve given ourselves at least a fighting chance at success.

Massive Ego: State of the Art

I just wanted to give everyone a quick status update. As you may have already noticed, the weekly Massive Ego column is a little bit late. That was because John was over in the UK and we took the opportunity to spend some time together. We had our first board meeting, revised our business plan, reviewed resin samples, drew up the world map, and played a couple of test games. It was great to talk face-to-face rather than over the internet, and we certainly got a lot more done.

Elsewhere we’ve both been writing briefs to send out to concept artists. We have three factions in active development and are looking to have character art ready for the sculptors in the next few weeks. That also means we’re getting closer to finally being able to reveal the game to you!

With regards the blog, I’m going to move Massive Ego to a bi-weekly column as we ramp up production. After we announce the game we’ll be showcasing some character art and background fiction, and I’ll share some insight into the game design.

Thanks to everyone for your support and patience so far; it feels like we’ve reached the tipping point between idea and reality, and we’ll hopefully be able to reward that patience really soon.