Aug 03 2009 -
Journey Onward: How CipSoft Made Tibia Come Alive
|round 1980, a couple of visionary programmers created the first text based online adventure games for computer systems. They were called multi-user dungeons, or MUDs. By typing commands like "north," "south," "take" or "use" the players moved and interacted in virtual environments which were completely made up by texts. There were no dungeons and monsters visually appearing on their screens, only descriptions saying "You are standing in front of an ancient shrine. Suddenly a giant black knight steps out from the shadow and draws a mighty axe!" Now the computer system would wait for you to type the next command. Scary.|
Almost twenty years after the advent of MUDs, three young computer science students from Regensburg, Germany, started to work out an ambitious plan. Inspired by those games, and the first simple graphical multi-user dungeons that followed, Steve, Stephan, and Durin decided to make an adventure game by themselves. Unlike the early text based MUDs, it should have a graphical user interface and a visual fantasy game world ready to be explored through the internet. It should be a real online role playing game with a sophisticated chat function for hundreds, or even thousands of players worldwide. The three decided to join forces at least until a first playable public version of what they called GIMUD – an abbreviation for Graphical Interface Multi-User Dungeon, the working title they chose for it – was finished. Although everybody had a general good feeling about it, there also was a smell of wariness in the air because, in the end, the whole project could either turn out to be a huge success, or a total waste of time. It was unpredictable.
On a sunny spring day in 1996, the three full-time students started out as part-time game developers to create a cutting-edge interactive entertainment product. They called themselves CIP Productions, referring to the name of a financial aid programme for German universities. With the money of this fund computer rooms, so called CIP-Pools, were set up which provided students with free access to the internet. For their ambitious project, the three game developers not only made use of their own private hardware, but also of the university's technical infrastructure, its servers, software, and the World Wide Web.
The development of GIMUD advanced rapidly. Already in August, they had a server programme running on Linux and a client programme running on Windows which allowed them to move a first wannabe character around in a rudimentary game world. When the world started to grow both in content and features, and slowly took the form of a fantasy setting, the game, they thought, needed a name that better fits the medieval style they were going to create. GIMUD was a much too technical name, so they chose Tibia which, they were convinced, would be unique and fresh, and without any given meanings yet. Well, later they found out that Tibia is the Latin anatomic term for shinbone, and it became a running gag in the future development of Tibia to give some ingame areas anatomic names as well, like Fibula or Mount Sternum.
When the first permanent public test server was successfully set up on the 7th of January 1997, the CIP Productions crew was extremely excited. Their very own game, finally published on the internet! A self-made logo appeared on the screen when the client was started, showing the name Tibia and the slogan "New Game, Journey Onward", both written in golden letters and placed against the background image of a rising sun. The first player visited Tibia on the 10th of January, three days after its release. He named his character Albe and was enthusiastically welcomed by the three gods when he entered the virtual grounds that spanned no more than 160 x 160 tiles in the beginning. At that time, there were no NPCs, vocations, and skills in Tibia, no magic spells could be cast and there was not a single depot available to store items. All those features, and many more, were only implemented within the first years after the initial release.
In 1999, Steve, Stephan, and Durin got to know Guido through a common real life friend. As it turned out, Guido already had a character in Tibia and played the game in his spare time. They had some fruitful conversations about Tibia and its future development. Guido, being a physicist with a strong analytic mind, immediately sensed great opportunities for the whole project. He was so intrigued by what he heard about it that he joined the god team and started out as a game content designer helping to expand the game world and to create monsters and items.
The four realised that they shared the same vision which became the moving spirit for their joint endeavour: to develop games based on new technologies, and to make them truly innovative by realising own ideas, rather than by just copying existing concepts. Soon it became apparent that Tibia was the result of this shared vision right from the start. Back in 1997, Tibia was one of the very first graphical role playing games in the internet, and therefore technologically absolutely outstanding at that time. By creating a persistent virtual fantasy world with unique features, the final game would also be really innovative in style and appearance. Tibia was never meant to be a high-end product regarding system requirements, but a cutting-edge game which should tap the full entertaining potential of the up-and-coming World Wide Web in the 1990s. And it truly did. Given that it emerged from a hobby project, Tibia became a huge success and attracted numerous players all over the world.
So from the very beginnings, the major aim of the Tibian gods was to develop games, not to found a company. They were not very interested in business and legal matters at that time but in making great games for ages. Well, when more and more players joined the game, growing demands on copyright, technology, and contents arose. They had to register Tibia as a trademark, buy more powerful servers, add novel areas and create plenty of new graphics. In the near future, they anticipated, even more manpower and own office spaces would be necessary to keep up with their tight development schedules. They already spent some money on this project, and would have to spend a lot more if they really wanted to make their vision of Tibia come true. The gods had to do something.
In June 2001, they finally abandoned their CIP Productions identity and turned into a real company. With the foundation of CipSoft they started to venture into a new direction: they left behind their student life and became a professional, goal oriented development team. This major step also put Tibia on a new level: with a corporate enterprise in the back, the legal grounds were laid to be an employer one day, to hire programmers and designers for pushing the game forward, to earn money and to spend it wherever necessary to make Tibia become the game they wanted it to be one day.
In order to keep their status of an independent games developer, CipSoft was founded without any outside capital. Until the present day, CipSoft is fully self-financed which means a lot of freedom for the management team and the employees. Moreover, the decision was made that CipSoft should publish its games by itself, so no third party would be involved in the distribution and marketing process. This set-up is quite unusual for the great majority of game companies on the market, but it brings along several benefits: you can pursue very own and creative ideas, even if they are completely maverick. There is no external party which sets the agenda for your game and defines its contents and features. Moreover, you are not under deadline pressure since you are the one who sets the development schedule.
However, the downside of being fully independent and a developer-publisher all in one is that you are completely on your own out there. There is no sponsor who gives you money for all the time and energy you put into your games, hoping that his investment will literally pay off in the future. Being a stand-alone company, you have to work hard for your success and come up for all expenses by yourself – computer workstations, servers, firewalls, phone bills, wages, taxes, office rent, furniture, just to mention a few. CipSoft took the risks and decided to start up as a game company right from the campus. Today, CipSoft's major product Tibia is the oldest still existing commercial MMO in the world.
Looking back, the decision to venture into independence with an MMO at hand was absolutely worth while. In 2007, CipSoft ranked fourth in the list of Germany's fastest growing technology companies! It grew to an enterprise with more than 50 employees, many of whom had been hired directly from the player community like Craban, Mercutio, Chayenne, Knightmare or Grimrath. Solkrin, also being a former community member himself, was the very first employee at CipSoft. No, he did not start out as a programmer or a designer. Solkrin was hired for doing customer support! He joined in 2003.
For such fast growth, an efficient organisational structure is necessary. The CipSoft staff is split up into seven different departments today that act in concert to develop Tibia further: programmers, game content designers, system administrators, customer support representatives, community managers, a marketing specialist and several employees for internal organisational matters. Having separated areas of responsibilities is a must for a smooth-running daily business. A company like CipSoft also has to have a great passion for all kinds of games, and a lot of fun playing them. Handling both creativity and organisation at the same time, however, is not always easy. Every now and then, important decisions have to be made which might add new features to the gameplay or remove others. A lot of creative ideas flourish in the minds of CipSoft members but unlike in former times implementing them instantly would entirely jumble the product management's long-term strategies for Tibia now. In most cases, those decisions have to be thought through very carefully. This frequently takes a lot of time because several analyses and discussions with the team leads are needed beforehand in order to find the best possible solutions.
In retrospect, the foundation of CipSoft and the development of Tibia cannot be separated from each other. There is only one big story to tell and this one includes both the company's and the game's history. CipSoft considers itself to be a pool of passionate people from very diverse backgrounds who pursue a common goal: making truly innovative games by realising own ideas. All of us are aware of the fact that this goal cannot be reached without having a strong and supportive community we can count on. When the community management department was launched by the end of 2008, one of the biggest improvements in the history of CipSoft has finally been made: the community was given a voice inside the company.
Having two more products in its portfolio now, CipSoft already advanced another step further. TibiaME is the first massive multiplayer online role playing game for mobile phones, launched in 2003. The other one is Fiction Fighters, an interactive online comic which is still in development. This would be an excellent hook for a re-writing of CipSoft's history: first, there was a small company inseparably linked to a single product, Tibia. Now, there is a fastly growing enterprise that stands behind a couple of projects pushing all of them forward. What will be next?
Come along and you will see!
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