[How did the Bungie veterans at indie developer Certain Affinity construct its downloadable pirate-themed console RTS Age of Booty? We have some fun highlights from the Game Developer cover postmortem here - oh, and random extra fact, did you know that C64 music legend Martin Galway is Certain Affinity's audio director?]

The latest issue of GameSetWatch sister publication Game Developer magazine includes a creator-written postmortem on the making of Certain Affinity's Age of Booty, the pirate-themed RTS released via download on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network.

These extracts reveal how the Texas-based start-up studio behind the game faced the obstacles of succeeding as an independent development house while still keeping a hold on its game rights.

Certain Affinity president Max Hoberman, a Bungie Studios veteran, crafted the postmortem of the Capcom-published product, which was introduced in Game Developer as follows:

"Beginning with a paper prototype and then creating an original engine, Certain Affinity brought Age of Booty to completion in just over a year, all while juggling multiple projects and shuffling developers on and off the project. Even an unexpected last minute dispute over the name couldn't scuttle the game and Certain Affinity took home the real treasure: full control over its own IP."

The Importance of Prototyping

Particularly for downloadable games that rest heavily on heavily-repeated mechanics, early and thorough prototyping of the concept is crucial.

Hoberman explains of the game, which has largely positive, constructive reviews on aggregation site Metacritic:

"One of the things I most appreciate about Settlers of Catan is that a player can learn all the rules and mechanics during a single game. This was the very heart of what we were trying to accomplish with Age of Booty -- nailing a simple, intuitive control scheme was our highest priority.

"Once we'd nailed the basic controls it was possible to manage resources and sail a single ship around and fight, but there really wasn't much depth to combat, partially due to the simplified control scheme. We wanted combat to happen automatically when ships got near each other, without requiring micro-management, and this added to the feeling that there wasn't enough to do. Rather than adding complexity to the controls we decided to get team play working.

"Before this there was a little bit of randomness in combat, but when two ships were fighting, the player with the bigger guns almost always won. The addition of teams allowed you to work together against a single enemy and manipulate the odds.

"We didn't fully appreciated the depth that this added until we played a few team games, and two of our artists -- guys that barely even play games -- skunked us designers. We'd been beating them mercilessly on our Halo maps for months, so at first we thought this was a fluke. We tried it again. And again. And again. They were unbeatable.

"We actually thought that they were cheating until we watched them play. They stuck together like glue, while we got cocky and went off and each did our own thing, and this worked to their advantage time and time again. We tried to emulate this strategy but inevitably bickered and lacked coordination and always ended up losing. We were consumed with a burning passion to beat the artists at our own game, and at that point we knew that we'd discovered something wonderful.

"Team play added a ton of depth to the game without compromising the simple controls. This was probably the best possible start for a game. We had created a playable prototype that looked good, that was both easy and fun to play, and that demonstrated the game's core mechanics. The value of this prototype can't be underestimated -- not just in helping us pitch the game, but in guiding us later on."

Communication is the First Casualty

Even within a smaller team like Certain Affinity, when communication between disciplines starts to break down, the project will inevitably have problems.

Hoberman explains of some of the issues inherent in creating a game with a smaller team with less well-defined roles:

"The changing assignments and splitting of focus challenged everyone and presented a prioritization nightmare that left no area untouched. One serious consequence was a breakdown in cross-disciplinary communication, something we take a lot of pride in, as evidenced by our completely open pit-style office.

"Over the course of the project there were numerous disconnects between the perceived state of the game and the actual state of the game, especially between programmers and designers, but sometimes also between artists and programmers.

"Animation support was one huge casualty of this disconnect, ultimately causing us to cut characters and character animation entirely, after we'd already done the modeling work and re-done the animation work several times.

"The hardest hit were the designers, who continued fine-tuning plans for sophisticated features like matchmaking and party support long after the programmers had already made huge simplifications (and often cuts) to these systems.

"A combination of lack of attention to the project, poor communication, and wishful thinking led to the design team believing that several features were far more advanced than we were actually able to implement, and they did not find out the reality until very late in the project.

"These misconceptions inevitably trickled down to Capcom and caused some confusion and even a bit of friction toward the end of the project when they learned about big cuts and changes that had been made months earlier."

It's Better to be "The Man"

After the game ships, it can make a huge difference to the studio whether it has retained the intellectual property to its creation.

Certain Affinity pulled off that sometimes-difficult trick of having a publisher to help fund the game, but having the IP under its control for subsequent titles, as follows:

"One of the very best things we did was negotiate a deal that left us entirely in control of the game and the intellectual property. We went in to discussions with this as our highest priority, but to be completely honest I was a bit surprised when we walked out with full IP ownership.

"What this did for us in a development sense was provide awesome motivation. There was no way the publisher could dictate our game design, and regardless of how much the company made off of this first title we knew that we were building something that had long-term value.

"This was a great motivator both for the development team and for business decisions. Simply put, this gave us a reason to invest our own money in the game, above and beyond what we got from the publisher.

"We couldn't have crammed all of the juicy features we wanted in otherwise; the business model for a single title, and especially for a risky new IP (a downloadable game, at that) simply didn't justify the investment."

Additional Info

The full postmortem, including a great deal more insight into Age of Booty's development, with "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" reasoning, is now available in the November 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine.

The issue also includes Game Developer's first annual "Top Deck" feature of influential and innovative game developers, and Oliver Franzke offers up an in-depth feature compiling best practices for error reporting and value editing systems.

Plus, as usual, there is Matthew Wasteland's humor column, as well as development columns from Power of Two's Noel Llopis, Bungie's Steve Theodore, LucasArts' Jesse Harlin, and Maxis' Soren Johnson.

Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of November 2008's magazine as a single issue.