Interview with Gene Endrody, developer of Sherwood Dungeon
Have you ever wanted to make your own MMOG? Have you ever thought if only you
knew how to code you would make an MMOG that rocks? Few of us really think we
could do something like that on our own. Well for the past 6 years, Gene Endrody
has done exactly that! He has painstakingly single handedly created his own free
to play MMOG called Sherwood Dungeon. Growing to over 1 million unique players
per month, Gene has shown how far one man with a dream and a little know how can
climb. Ten Ton Hammer recently sat down with Gene to discuss the success of
One man made all of this?
Ten Ton Hammer: Tell us about Sherwood Dungeon. For those that are
unfamiliar with it, what is it?
Gene Endrody: Sherwood Dungeon is a free 3D fantasy MMO that runs in your web
browser but with the look and feel of a downloadable client or boxed game. As we
donít require registration or download, most players can go from discovering the
game to playing it in less than a minute. Sherwood is spread over six islands
and includes a procedurally generated dungeon influenced by games like Rogue and
Nethack. Combat is skill or twitch based as timing and practice are emphasized
over XP level, particularly for PVP where XP levels have no influence. Sherwood
doesnít use the traditional tank, DPS, healer trinity and focuses more on an
action RPG style of melee combat. This was intended to make the game more in
your face and visceral. Did I mention that itís also free? There are unobtrusive
ads that run directly under the game and some optional pets that can be
purchased for $5 each, but all the core elements are completely free of charge.
Ten Ton Hammer: What inspired you to make the game and tackle a project
of this type?
Gene: I started making small shockwave based games in the evenings and weekends
ten years ago while I was working in the console game industry as a technical
art director. These were just small, fun hobby projects and there were no grand
plans or aspirations. I was inspired by designers like Richard Garriott, who
created many of the early Ultima games by himself. The web browser seemed to be
one of the few spaces left where it was still possible to tackle game projects
as a solo developer. By the time development started on Sherwood in 2004, some
of my earlier games and tech demos had already established a small following and
Iíd attracted the attention of the Shockwave team at Macromedia (now Adobe).
They nominated one of the projects for a Peopleís Choice Award at Macromediaís
User Conference in 2001 and provided some of the early web traffic. In those
early years I wasnít expecting any money and I didnít have a budget per se. I
just made stuff, put it up on the MaidMarian.com website and because those early
experiments were either 3D chatrooms or multiplayer games of some sort, a player
community formed. They were the ones that really encouraged me to tackle a
fantasy MMO and helped establish the emergent nature of the early Sherwood
Ten Ton Hammer: How do you survive six years without advertising or
Gene: Initially the players came from other projects I was working on but that
grew organically through word of mouth over time. I put ads directly under the
games to help cover bandwidth and server costs. By the time I left my day job in
2006, the revenue from advertising had passed what I was making working in the
console games industry. My wife joined the company at that time to handle
everything not directly related to making or running the games. In 2008 I added
a selection of pets, mounts and allies to the game including creatures like
wolves, dragons, lions, unicorns and spiders. Today the pet sales account for
about 30% of revenue. Weíve tried to maintain a small, mom and pop corner
grocery store feel to the business as opposed to becoming a traditional
publisher funded developer or VC funded startup. We are not beholden to
investors, publishers or distributors, donít do work for hire, donít owe anyone
money and own 100% of the IP. Iím very aware of how lucky that makes us
especially considering the games industry in recent years seems to be running on
the feudal system.
Ten Ton Hammer: How long did it take for the game to be developed, given
that it's a one man team?
Gene: In late 2003 I started with a statement on the MaidMarian.com website that
Sherwood would be an experiment with a more open development process where the
players could see the game evolve over time and participate in the process with
their feedback. The players understood it would never be finished and that what
I was attempting to do was a little wacko, particularly for some guy in his
basement with a day job. The first version of the game was released in early
2004 and it was just a simple 3D chat room with one avatar and swords that
didnít actually do any damage. Early players bought into the idea of what
Sherwood could be some day as opposed to what it actually was. The fact that I
wanted their feedback to help steer the direction of development was apparently
such a rare thing that they were willing to overlook the fact that it was barely
a game at that point. Other than just hanging out and chatting, players began
filling the gaps with their own activities and a culture of emergent play
started that never left the game. Week by week Iíve released many updates and
Sherwood has evolved into what we have today. I still consider it unfinished and
thereís plenty left to do.
Ten Ton Hammer: What were some of the biggest challenges, and how did
you overcome them?
Gene: I enjoy the technical challenge and although Iíve been in over my head a
few times, thatís not where I lose the most sleep. The biggest challenge has
been just putting myself out there. Feedback from players and critiques can put
you on an emotional rollercoaster. Many players donít necessary know or care
that itís just one guy who made the game. They just want entertainment value and
even if the game is free, their time is valuable. With so many players there is
constant pressure to deliver that canít be escaped other than to put my head
down, do the work and try to remember that Iím really lucky.
Ten Ton Hammer: How many people are playing the game now?
Gene: We get about 1.5 million unique visitors every month across all of our
games. Sherwood Dungeon gets just over a million unique players per month.
Ten Ton Hammer: How many can the server support?
Gene: We have three game servers and each can comfortably handle around 3000
players. Right now we peak at about 1500 to 2000 concurrent users per server
depending on the day of the week.
Ten Ton Hammer: Is the hardware personally owned & maintained or are you
set up commercially?
Gene: We rent self managed dedicated servers from Server Beach. This makes it
easy to retire older hardware and we can easily add new servers as our bandwidth
requirements go up. We have 11 servers dedicated to web, game or database
applications and push about 30 terabytes of data every month. Because weíre a
small operation, Iíve tried to keep the servers as simple and streamlined as
possible with multiple layers of redundancy to cover any surprises.
Ten Ton Hammer: Why the choice now to step it up and start publicity for
Gene: This was actually because of Ten Ton Hammer. Iím a frequent visitor to
your site and noticed we were missing in action from your list of 350 MMOs
despite the fact that we have a larger player base and longer history than many
of the games on the list. This really hammered the point home to me that we were
doing an especially bad job at getting the word out to the press about who we
are and what weíve been up to. Many of the larger game companies issue a press
release every time something even remotely interesting happens with one of their
games. Sherwood may be a quirky, independent, underground cult game but we are
also one of the more established veterans in the browser MMO space and in
retrospect we should have been making more of an effort with publicity all
Ten Ton Hammer: Where do you see the game going from here?
Gene: Iím going to stick with the same process and continue to evolve the game
through small updates. We donít talk much about updates before they are released
or discuss specifics about whatís in the works and new features usually just
appear in the game without advanced notice or hype. This way thereís no false
expectations and itís just a nice surprise. Players can often get a sense of
whatís on my priority list from the on-going conversations on the Facebook page,
particularly when I ask for feedback on aspects of the game. No player community
speaks with one voice, so itís always a tricky balancing act. I try to be
transparent about the process and donít treat the players like they are idiots.
When Iím forced to make a controversial choice, whether or not they agree, at
least thereís an understanding about how I reached that decision. Iím over
simplifying how complex this can be, but after six years Iíve gotten a little
better at it.
Ten Ton Hammer: Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers about
the game or the development of it?
Gene: Sherwood is designed to be playable either in a small window, typical of a
web game or full screen, more like a boxed MMO. We have a liberal linking policy
and provide code so that any website can embed Sherwood and the other games on
their site so long as the ad is visible under the game. With hundreds of sites
linking in, weíve ended up with an ad-hoc distribution network rather than
relying on a major game portal. This also means that Sherwood guilds and clans
can include the game itself as part of the content of their guild site. So if
you want Sherwood Dungeon on your website, let me know.