DarkFlow today is far from finished, and so it’s evolution is still very much underway, but a lot has happened already so let’s take a minute to look back at how we got here. If you were to compare DarkFlow today to the evolution of humans from primates, DarkFlow today has surely made it off it’s knuckles, it’s still pretty hairy, and far from standing upright but it’s getting there. But this post is about looking further back, to that quadruped-ish ape, the very beginning of this journey. There lies another game entirely, an unfinished first draft called Bellum Ex.
The effort to build Bellum Ex began nearly a decade ago, when four friends decided their love of video games demanded at least an attempt at making one of their own. None knew anything about the technical side of game development, most had yet to finish college, and certainly none were burdened with dedication to a genuine career. This beginning had shaky legs at best, and frankly became more of an interest group than a legitimate project. We really just generated ideas, worlds, stories, game-play concepts, lots of creativity, but focus and clear direction were a bit absent. Enter the most focused and successful hobbyist I’ve ever known, my older brother. Jon caught wind of what we were up to, and was very interested in joining.
I need to digress a bit to elaborate on my point above about Jon’s enthusiasm for hobby projects. You see, Jon has long had a flare for taking a hobby, embracing it with such passion and dedication as to make it into something more. The list is truly too long to cover in detail, as we’d never return to the history of Flow, so let me instead just touch on a couple of my favorites. When I was in high school and Jon was somewhere between high school and knowing what he wanted to do in college, we played a lot of Magic the Gathering together. In fact, we had for years, but we’d managed to find a decent handful of friends who were equally enamored with the CCG. One day we stumbled across some Ebay auctions that had great deals on unopened MTG packs. Excited, we scooped up more than we could really afford, knowing we could pass the deal on to some friends. The light bulb went off for Jon, and in short order we were hosting tournaments in our parents basement, cruising Ebay daily for deals, and reselling packs at prices that undercut the stores in town. We turned a few thousand dollars in profit across a school year. While that may have been one of our first forays into hobby-ing turned venture, it certainly wasn’t Jon’s last. While in college, Jon discovered Second Life one random weekend, and put his physics degree to work, building a bipedal mechanized vehicle that realistically walked using the Second Life physics engine. (He had some help from myself and Alex!) That one was far less lucrative, but infinitely more impressive and certainly foundational.
Okay, you get the point, (I appreciate your indulgence) Jon doesn’t mess around when it comes to projects like this. So once Jon joined the team, we quickly settled on a direction, and in extremely short order Jon had a playable prototype while the rest of us day dreamed. At first that prototype was a wire-frame eye bleeder that would have made the virtual boy proud. There were something like 10 team members on the project and Jon was really the only one coding the game, so as you might guess, there were some pretty insanely ambitious plot and universe ideas for the game. “Bellum Ex” is Latin for “From war” and so the story we set out to tell was one of an unlikely salvation for humanity, sprung from war. While it was a novel idea, it was likely far to ambitious for a novice team like ours. We surely lacked the resources to do the story justice.
While the rest of our heads were way up in the clouds, Jon was hard at work on building out a playable demo of a top down shoot-em-up. We tattered together 3-d models, and hand drawn art, and perhaps one of the few pieces of the beta that still evokes some emotion in me was Robin’s soundtrack. While it was miles away from a polished product, I still find myself firing up the demo and playing it every year or two, and genuinely enjoying myself. The game also had the virtue of being good and hard, like Nintendo hard, making a single level good for an hour of engaging play to this day.
Around the time we finished the demo, the winds of change were blowing. Team members were graduating school, starting careers, time was growing scarce, and priorities were changing. Sadly the team disbanded and Bellum Ex fell to the floor. Just as it did, Jon was hatching a new proof of concept, a radical idea, ambitious, novel, and notably more cinematic. There was no momentum left for this new idea though, and it too fell. But from the ashes of Bellum, a phoenix of a game would arise several years later, a game called DarkFlow.