Tom and Tony Cannon know about building communities. Specifically, communities for people who compete in games where characters pummel each other senseless. Now they want to make a game where avatars live together in (relative) harmony. But they say that Stonehearth—the city-building game that they’re trying to fund via a just-launched Kickstarter campaign—isn’t all that far removed from Street Fighter. Seriously.
Maybe you don’t know their names. You almost certainly know of what they’ve done, though. Heard of EVO, the world-renowned fighting game tournament? They started it with their friends. Ever visited Shoryuken, the leading website for fans of that genre? It’s another brainchild of theirs. Remember when all of a sudden playing a fighting game online wasn’t a horribly laggy experience? The Cannon-created GGPO middleware was to thank for that.
I've known Tom for 20 years and he's become one of my best friends. I met Tony after Tom, but they are a pretty amazing pair (and I refer to them together because they are identical twins, and have always worked together at the same companies and lived close together).
In the fighting game world, they are not unknowns, and are universally recognized as founding fathers. They organized the first large-scale fighting game tournaments (in 1996), went on to found fighting game supersite shoryuken.com (1999), and then created EVO (2001), which grew into the global leader with no investors, no marketing, and no PR (it may actually be the largest open gaming competition in the world—I don't know of anyone apart from EVO in the wide world of eSports running multi-thousand entrant live tournaments—the logistics and equipment are felt to be prohibitive). Not only did it sustain (and even grow) the fighting genre through the dark pre-SFIV days, along the way they've managed to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to various charities, started college scholarships (including a new one at New York University’s Game Center), and pioneered an expansive indie section of the event. The indie section of EVO is free to developers, to inspire attendees not just to greatness as players, but also to create their own games and find their way into the wider industry (from which Divekick emerged to recent notoriety).
2006. Arcades were disappearing. New fighting games were not coming out. Even ports of older fighters that did have online play were so laggy that they were virtually unplayable. Disappointed with the situation, Tony Cannon decided to solve the problem that had eluded major studios himself. He created a piece of online middleware called GGPO (short for "Good Game, Peace Out") for free, compatible with emulated games on PC (which are legal so long as the player owns a legit copy of the game as well).
Rather than taking the previously standard brute force approach of peer-to-peer packets, by understanding the core of fighting games deeply, Tony was able to hide online latency within what are called "fixed frames" within the game, doing subtle one-frame fast forwards or rewinds of your game state to keep both players in sync with a centralized clock, and preserving the all-important feel of immediacy and allowing players' carefully honed muscle memory to actually work consistently.
Usually you have to relearn your timing for slower online speeds, and even that's not really a solution as connection speeds are variable, so you have to learn many multiples of things and then gauge the speed you're actually playing at for each connection. Even when this works at all, it still sucks. GGPO however was an instant hit with players worldwide, who boggled at their arcade-like game quality even with opponents across the country or around the world. Home-brewed but technologically sophisticated, GGPO became so popular that it was eventually licensed and implemented by traditional game developers, including Iron Galaxy, Skullgirls, and even Capcom itself. The technology alone is such a big deal to the hardcore players that it's even called out in promotional game trailers, and had fans making their own "GGPO" t-shirts—not something you usually see with an arcane piece of technical middleware.
That brings us to today: About 1.5 years ago, they both quit excellent jobs as senior software engineers at Silicon Valley darling VMWare to pursue their dream of making their own game, Stonehearth. It's a voxel-based game that combines the sandbox gameplay of old D&D modules with the infinite extensibility and creative possibilities of Minecraft-style games, all built on an engine they made themselves, and is frankly pretty rad.
One hell of an endorsement, no? But, if you’re like me and wondering why the twin siblings’ first game isn’t about building meter and super-moves, then you should read the answers to the questions I sent them below:
Kotaku: Why make a game so far away—conceptually, anyway—from what you presumably know best?
Tony: The best advice we got when starting out was, “make the game you want to play.” Stonehearth is the game that I’d most love to play right now. The games I love the most are the ones that love you back: the more time and thoughtfulness you invest in them, the more rewarding they are to play. It’s why I’m so into fighting games, and I love games which have deep strategic or tactical systems like Civilization and Starcraft.
I also read a lot of science fiction and fantasy when I was young and played my fair share of Dungeons and Dragons. I loved the SSI gold-box series of games, and read every Boatmurdered update with glee. Stonehearth has deep, tactical gameplay systems, but is primarily a game of telling the story of growing your city from a few settlers to a thriving civilization.
"We’re placing a strong emphasis on modding so that people can put their own ideas in the game like new items, creatures, or whole adventures and share them with everyone in the Stonehearth community."
We’re placing a strong emphasis on modding so that people can put their own ideas in the game like new items, creatures, or whole adventures and share them with everyone in the Stonehearth community. In a perfect world, this means the story of your city never has to end. There will always be new challenges, new quests, new items, new classes: more of everything for you to explore in the game.
Tom: Basically as we get older and slower, we’re sort of returning to the games of our childhoods, before fighting games blew up when we were in high school.
Kotaku: What drove you to become programmers?
Tony: When we were little we got completely hooked on the Atari 2600 we got for Christmas. We would spend hours playing Combat, Asteroids, and Adventure, or take turns trying to best each other on Yar’s Revenge. I knew right from then that I wanted to learn to make my own video game.
The Atari 800 XL came out when I was like 11 or 12. I begged my parents for months and was lucky enough to get one and a Basic Language cartridge for Christmas. From there it was just trying to figure out how to program using the glossy language syntax cheat sheet that came in the box. There were these magazines you could buy which had hundreds of lines of basic code you could type in to make these little trivial games.
I spent hours typing these in, figuring out how they worked, and tweaking them to make them better. This was incredibly tedious, especially since we didn’t have any kind of storage device, so everything was lost when we turned off the computer. It was still awesome, though. After that, I was completely hooked.
Tom says: "This is from around 1994. I'm on the far left. The kid in glasses next to me is Derek Daniels, lead combat designer on the original God of War."
Tom: It took me a while longer to figure things out. For a long time, I wanted to be an artist. It wasn’t until I got to college and started taking Computer Science classes that I seriously considered it as a career. Having a background in art helped me a lot as a software developer before turning to games. I could work on the product top to bottom, from the interface design down to the actual code. It’s been helpful when writing the game too. I do all the art, but I don’t have to rely on anyone else for support. If I need a tool, I just write it.
Kotaku: When did you realize you could fix latency problems with GGPO?
Tony: It was around 2006. I hadn’t really thought about it much before then, because it just seemed like such a theoretical problem without much practical application. Most people played fighting in either the arcade or on consoles, and those weren’t really attached to a network. The Dreamcast modem and XBand were there, but not really mainstream.
By the time Street Fighter II ‘HF for the XBox 360 came out, broadband was really starting to catch on, and I seriously started thinking if there was a way to do better. It was pretty clear that waiting for packets to arrive before updating the game was a losing strategy: no games with good networking (primarily first-person shooters) actually did that. They used client-side prediction to display the players' actions right away, while updates from other players arrived later from a master server.
I wanted to replicate that experience, without the need for a master server and without requiring a complete rewrite of a the game designed for local-only play. The rest fell into place over the next year of hacking up FinalBurn Alpha in my spare time.
Tom says: "Evo 2002. Notice the arcade machines in the background! This was our last arcade-based tournament."
Kotaku: EVO has become one of the biggest video game institutions in the world now, with year-round qualifying tournaments around the world and scholarships. What’s surprised you the most about how it’s transformed over the years?
Tom: The most surprising part is just how big and crazy it has gotten while still being fueled by the fans. EVO isn’t anyone’s full time job. The only way we can do it is by getting a ton of support from the fighting game scene at large.
"EVO isn’t anyone’s full time job. The only way we can do it is by getting a ton of support from the fighting game scene at large."
As we all mature in our professional lives, players have brought their industry skills to bear on improving EVO. We get professional quality support for things like motion graphics and video production at a 98% to 100% discount because the work is done by fighting game fans that just want to see the scene grow.
A screenshot of what the Shoryuken website looked like in 2005
Tony: EVO has always been an event organized by players and for fans and players. Our goal is to run the best tournament we can to find the best fighting game player in the world. The fact that it’s grown to become the largest fighting game tournament in the world is a testament to the passion of the community of people who just love these games.
Kotaku: What’s been the hardest thing about shifting from game playing to game-making?
Tony: Actually, the biggest shift has been from my day job as a technical lead in an enterprise virtualization company to an indie game developer. In enterprise software, things are much more measurable: the problems and economics of the problem space is fairly well understood.
As a game developer, I still have really hard technical challenges to solve, but the end-result also has to be super fun, or what’s the point? It’s also been a big shift from working on a team of over 100 developers to one with just two: me and Tom. We’ve both done small startups before, but none quite this small! It’s super different and exciting to be building something we’re passionate about from the ground up.
Tom: The hardest shift for me has been to understand that things take time. Looking at my game as a player, I can see all the things wrong with it that I need to fix. But each fix takes time; usually more time than you originally thought. It’s easy to get impatient.
As a player, you’re delivered the game and it’s mostly take it or leave it. As a developer, if you don’t like something, you just fix it. But, you have to deal with the fact that time is finite and learn to prioritize your work.
Kotaku: Why would a hardcore fighting-game fan want to check out Stonehearth? Are there design ideas from your favorite fighting games that can work inside a sandbox-style RPG?
Tony: We are borrowing the notion of big, meaningful choices. Most fighting game characters have clear and different paths to victory. Zangief wants to get close to you and land his throws. Dhalsim wants to keep you as far away as possible. But, there’s no character that is both Zangief and Dhalsim (except silly boss characters like Seth). You can only be one or the other.
We want Stonehearth to have that same sense of strong choice. To be strong in one area, you’re going to have to give something else up. If you want to be the biggest kid on the block with a strong army, then you’re going to expose a weakness elsewhere, maybe in the stability of your food supply.
"We are borrowing the notion of big, meaningful choices. We want Stonehearth to have that same sense of strong choice. To be strong in one area, you’re going to have to give something else up."
Tom: Other than that, Stonehearth is a game about discovering and mastering new systems, which is personally my favorite part of a fighting game. In Stonehearth game systems like construction, combat, and farming are all basically interrelated mini-games with their rules. I think anyone who enjoys exploring complex systems, including fighting game players, will get a kick out of Stonehearth.