Ten Ton Hammer: Exclusive Interview With Creator of Sherwood Dungeon
June 28, 2010


Original Article: http://www.tentonhammer.com/sherwood-dungeon/interview

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 Sherwood Dungeon.

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 don�t 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 doesn�t 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 it�s 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 I�d attracted the attention of the Shockwave team at Macromedia (now Adobe). They nominated one of the projects for a People�s Choice Award at Macromedia�s User Conference in 2001 and provided some of the early web traffic. In those early years I wasn�t expecting any money and I didn�t 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 community.

Ten Ton Hammer: How do you survive six years without advertising or marketing?

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. We�ve 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, don�t do work for hire, don�t owe anyone money and own 100% of the IP. I�m 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 didn�t 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 I�ve released many updates and Sherwood has evolved into what we have today. I still consider it unfinished and there�s 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 I�ve been in over my head a few times, that�s 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 don�t necessary know or care that it�s 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 can�t be escaped other than to put my head down, do the work and try to remember that I�m 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 we�re a small operation, I�ve 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 it?

Gene: This was actually because of Ten Ton Hammer. I�m 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 we�ve 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 along.

Ten Ton Hammer: Where do you see the game going from here?

Gene: I�m going to stick with the same process and continue to evolve the game through small updates. We don�t talk much about updates before they are released or discuss specifics about what�s in the works and new features usually just appear in the game without advanced notice or hype. This way there�s no false expectations and it�s just a nice surprise. Players can often get a sense of what�s 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 it�s always a tricky balancing act. I try to be transparent about the process and don�t treat the players like they are idiots. When I�m forced to make a controversial choice, whether or not they agree, at least there�s an understanding about how I reached that decision. I�m over simplifying how complex this can be, but after six years I�ve 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, we�ve 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.