One Man's 16-Year Journey to Release an MMO Made Entirely By Themselves

How a small community kept a developer's childhood project alive long enough to be completed.

Feb 16 2021, 2:00pm

It takes more than a village to build a video game these days—it's more like a city, really. This is especially true if you're building a massively multiplayer online game, an ongoing experience meant to keep a player's attention for more than just a few days or weeks. But for more than 16 years now, Björn Johansson, who goes by the online pseudonym William, has been slowly building Key to Heaven, a 2D MMO about exploring and surviving a mysterious island with friends. And it's almost done.

"Making everything yourself is very time-consuming, especially when it comes to a multiplayer game like this," said Johansson, conveying the understatement of the century.

Work on Key to Heaven started in 2005, when Johansson was 16 years old. When Key to Heaven launches on Steam at the end of March, Johansson will be twice that: 32 years old. In some form or another, Johansson has been working on Key to Heaven half of his life.

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Johansson became interested in making games when his father came home with a copy of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for him and his two older brothers. Johansson didn't have any influence on what game his father picked out for the family, but for whatever reason, A Link to the Past caught his eye, and so, that's the cartridge that came home.

"I wanted to make a game to share an adventure with other people," said Johansson.

He was 10 years old at the time, and it would be several years before Johansson started on Key to Heaven. At the time, it wasn't even clear how someone would go about making a video game. To Johansson, his father went to the store, bought a magical object called a "cartridge," and a game sprang to life on theTV. Johansson wanted to learn more, but his family only had access to an expensive dial-up Internet connection, so usage was heavily restricted. One day, though, he was at his aunt's house, and his aunt had a speedy broadband connection. That's where he started researching, and stumbled onto RPG Toolkit.

Long before the video game industry was interested in making tools accessible for the average person, software like RPG Toolkit was absolutely essential. Anybody could use it.

A screen shot from 'Marovia,' an early RPG made by a young Johansson in the early 2000s.

Johansson started making single-player adventures in RPG Toolkit, before feeling his ambition grow. He didn't know how to program, but before RPG Toolkit, he didn't know how to design a game, either. Why not learn to program, too? That's how he found Microsoft's Visual Basic programming language, which was specifically designed to be approachable.

"I do not remember exactly how I discovered it but I must have searched on altavista.com for something game-related," he said. "Regardless, I began learning VB6 [Visual Basic 6] and everything that was required to make."

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That Johansson can reference AltaVista is a sign of the times. These days, most people search the Internet using Google, which has, for better and worse, become the default. In the era of AltaVista, there were actually multiple search websites, such as WebCrawler, and each of them had their strengths and weaknesses. It was a different time on the Internet, one where you couldn't, for example, load up YouTube and watch Unity developer tutorials.

Discovering Microsoft's programming language laid the foundation for Key to Heaven, because it allowed him to envision a game where there was more than a single player.

An extremely early version of 'Key to Heaven,' before the game's lengthy hiatus in 2012.

For the next seven years, Johansson kept picking away at Key to Heaven, ultimately culminating in an early "finished" version of the game that arrived in 2012. During that period, Microsoft actually dropped support for Visual Basic 6, an announcement that, at first, scared the hell out of Johansson because, as an amateur, he "did not really understand that would mean" because there weren't many online resources for game development—he was completely on his own. Fortunately, the game wasn't impacted and the game ran just fine.

But in 2012, Johansson felt he'd hit a wall with the game.

"I was kinda out of ideas and didn't really know where to go from there," said Johansson. "If the game had become huge for some reason I believe it could have guided me further. But I was all alone, learning by doing, and with a very small community of loyal players. The game world was designed with a proper ending so the game could be played from start to finish. Basically, it was a finished game just not a very good one."

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A key phrase: "very small community." Key to Heaven was an MMO, and an MMO needs players for it to function. An MMO is only as viable as the community it's able to cultivate, and at its peak, Johansson estimates there were 30 active people in the game's forums. A handful of people have been with the game since nearly its even more humble beginnings.

One member of that "very small community" was Tony Fisher, then an 18-year-old student and now a 30-year-old software engineer, who stumbled into Key to Heaven after tiring of the ways bigger companies got "greedy or crazy with their design choices" with their MMOs. Fisher had an aging computer at the time, so while his friends moved onto the next big MMO, he was forced to search around for something that he could reasonably be playing.

"I ended up searching online using Google and 'top 100' lists to find '2D open world online RPG games,'" said Fisher. "The ones which really stood out to me were the ones with an indie feel. They had such personality and you could tell that someone has created the game out of sheer passion as opposed to business metrics. Among those games was Key to Heaven and I signed up quite unsure of what I was getting into."

Fisher found Key to Heaven in 2009, four years into the game's lengthy production, and was drawn to the close knit community and the relationship they had with the sole creator. He eventually became more than someone who played the game, but a forum moderator, too.

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"He [Johansson] is always getting involved in the community and engaging with the players through polls on the discord channel and chatting in game," said Fisher. "You couldn't ask for a more down to earth and friendly guy to be running a server. It's very refreshing to have a real human being running the game instead of a cold cash hungry corporation."

These days, Fisher doesn't play as much, but sticks around to remain with the community.

"I wanted to make a game to share an adventure with other people.”

The homemade feel, the closeness to a real person, was what also attracted another longtime player. Scott McClur had spent time years ago in amateur game development communities and was drawn to the 2D sprites Johansson was making for Key to Heaven; calling them "leagues ahead of other people doing similar things in the community."

Again, Johansson wasn't just programming and designing Key to Heaven, he was also drawing all of the art that filled the game world. Some of the art that's in Key to Heaven to this day is material he'd produced ages ago for those old single-player RPGs from his youth.

When Key to Heaven "launched" in 2012, Johansson kept the game's servers running and the forum online, so people who were invested in the game could keep enjoying themselves. Johansson started working on some other projects, including sketching out a proper sequel to Key to Heaven. Looking back, Johansson said the wall Key to Heaven hit in 2012 had less to do with a lack of creative ideas than Johansson realizing the limitations of his own skills.

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Every step of the way, new problems were solved not by finding someone with the expertise to solve them, but with Johansson doing the research and banging his head against it.

Wall hit, Key to Heaven stayed online but remained stagnant for the next six years. 

But in 2018, revisiting Key to Heaven crept back into his brain. His life was pretty different. Johansson was a programmer for a tech company in Sweden and dating the woman who would soon become his wife and mother of their child. His free time was more accounted for, but he'd also spent years developing new skills that'd let him do more with Key to Heaven.

Visual Basic 6, the programming language Johansson used to build Key to Heaven, was long dead, so Johansson settled on completely rewriting the game's code base using the .NET Framework, a widely-liked developer platform that was also created by Microsoft.

The game's old content—items, monsters, maps, quests—came over, but the code was new, and revisiting every part of Key to Heaven gave Johansson an opportunity to improve it. That meant new art, updated gameplay mechanics, better randomization. It was a better game.

"The breather was necessary in order to figure out how and what to do in order to bring it further forward," he said. "It could be kinda like a sequel depending on the definition of it. But it's not a sequel in my eyes."

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But after 16 years, the finish line is in sight.

Johansson recently tested a near-finished version of Key to Heaven with fans in the game's official Discord channel, which he described as a moment of overwhelming anxiety because of how many things could easily go wrong—and how all of them basically fall into his lap. 

"I can only expect the real launch in March will be so much worse emotionally for me," he said. "I do expect my heart to beat very rapidly when I hit that 'release' button this final time."  

How 'Key to Heaven' looks in 2021, just before its official release.

Key to Heaven is currently in Steam's database with a playable demo. Having placement early on Steam is important because of the service's "wishlist" system, where players mark their interest in a game and agree to be notified when it launches, gets patched, goes on sale, etc. It's a direct line of communication between a potential player and the developer.

Right now, Key to Heaven is on 645 wishlists, which means there are 645 people who will get a notification when, presuming no delays, Johansson launches the game next month.

Over the years, Johansson's parents, responsible for kindling his love of games and leading him to try developing one on his own, have asked when Key to Heaven would be finished. 

"They do not fully understand the meaning behind the game or the purpose of it," he said. "All I feel is that they understand it's important to me and therefore they wish me luck."

Johansson noted his parents "were not always as understanding" while staying up late at night coding at their home. But he has run servers to operate Key to Heaven in their house as recently as last year, and occasionally been forced to ask them to restart a computer that went offline due to a power outage. His parents do know the game is almost done, however.

"I have not told them of the release date yet," he said. "I should probably do that."

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

Tagged:

MMO, Key to Heaven

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