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Archive for January, 2003

It turns out I’m not a very good listener. Here I am, five or six months into my first adventure game design project, and I’ve ignored the most frequently repeated words of advice for any first-time adventure game designer: I didn’t “start small.” Then again, I knew before I’d even decided on a story or setting that I’d probably end up ignoring that mantra anyway.

I wanted my game to be different than most other amateur efforts. Thanks to Adventure Game Studio and a few years worth of computer programming classes in high school and college, the most difficult technical obstacles were already out of the way before I started. But I knew from the very beginning, even as I worked alone on the game’s storyline, that making a professional quality game would take more than just myself, no matter how committed I might be.

Recruiting a team is a tricky thing for a first-time game designer, though. The amateur gaming community is full of people who formed a design team for a game that wasn’t far beyond the “cool idea” phase. I’ve seen it happen so many times that I know the pattern by heart. Someone posts a message online looking to form a team to work on an “awesome” game idea. Volunteers flock to the project, only to discover that the game really is just an idea. The team gets bogged down sorting out the details of the storyline, or—worse yet—produces a lot of artwork and animation that then has to be thrown away because the storyline is completely rewritten two months later. The next thing you know, team members start to disappear, and the project slowly fades away.

That’s not what I have in mind for my game. Some readers have asked why I spent month after month of pre-production time working on the storyline and characters, detailing every possible action and reaction I could imagine. The answer? To make sure that when the time came to form a team, I’d be ready to hit the ground running. And, after more work than anyone should ever have to do without getting paid, the moment finally arrived.

Working from a project management model that I learned during my time in the editorial department at Marvel Comics, I decided to divide the production of the game’s visual elements into four positions: layouts, pencils, color separations, and animation. With the story outline and in-game locations already established in my design dossier, I began work on the layouts myself. This position is a natural fit for me as the game’s creator, because it allows me to apply my creative vision to each game location, keeping in mind its relationship to individual puzzles and the wider game itself. I chose to work in a mostly linear fashion, breaking the game into four acts and determining which locations would be necessary for each act.

I began with act one, which is essentially a brief prelude that sets the scene for acts two and three (the heart of the story) and act four (the endgame). As I discussed in the third installment of this column, the game opens at a crossroads in the hills above the town of Old Sierra. I knew that there would be an abandoned gold mine nearby, and that the hero would need to find a way to sneak in, discover the mine’s secrets, and then escape. Working from this basic premise, and bearing in mind that the goal of the opening act is to lay the groundwork for everything that will happen in later acts, I decided to set the puzzle difficulty at “low” to allow for maximum character discovery and interaction with the game environment.

Next I began to sketch out the first few screens in a continuous background shot to get a feel for their relationship to each other. One of the benefits of having planned much of the game in advance by this point is that I could also include elements like Vulture Rock in the background scenery, to give the game a visual consistency that wouldn’t have been possible with a haphazard approach. At the same time, I decided upon the first puzzle—the hero needs to reach a back entrance into the mine that is, unfortunately, out of his reach—and its solution: He builds a ladder with the available materials scattered around the area. This puzzle meant that I needed to populate the area with everything the hero would need to reach the solution.

Outside the Haunted Mine (Credit: Josh Roberts and Frankie Washington)

I suppose the easiest solution would have been to actually provide a removable ladder on one of the screens, but I didn’t want to make it that easy. I also wanted to force the hero to interact with a character or two before entering the mine, just to help establish the backstory involving the town of Old Sierra and the hero’s specific quest. To do that, and to force exploration of the game environment, I chose to spread out the required puzzle elements across several screens. This is a much more linear puzzle-and-location formula than I’ll use for the rest of the game, particularly for the two middle acts, but it seemed to be a natural approach for the first location, which I knew would be limited to just five or six screens.

With the first puzzle and its solution established, and with a solid idea now of how to approach additional areas and puzzles, I was able to easily sketch out the first five game screens. And at this point, I was also ready to bring on another artist to turn the rough layout sketches into polished pencil artwork. I pitched the project to a local artist named Frankie Washington, and soon was able to bring him on board as a background artist. Frankie and I also worked together on designing the principal characters in the game—a crucial step in determining the overall look of the game itself.

Color Work by Dan Lee

After we completed the first screen, I posted a scaled down version of the image online at the Adventure Game Studio Critics’ Lounge. There I stumbled upon my first real stroke of luck. A few of the board’s visitors took it upon themselves to apply different coloring techniques on top of the pencil work, and I was more than a little impressed with the results. After a day or two of consideration, I contacted one of the artists—a college computer science student by the name of Dan Lee—and discussed my project in greater detail with him. Soon, he became the third member of the design team.

That was about four weeks ago. Today, we’re finishing up the color work on the area outside of the abandoned gold mine (consisting of five screens and one puzzle), finalizing the pencil work for the interior of the mine (eight screens and six small puzzles), and beginning the layouts and puzzle design for the next portion of the game (acts two and three).

Next: Contributors Wanted—Dead or Alive!

This blog entry originally appeared at Adventure Gamers.
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A few months ago, I set out to create an adventure game from the ground up with three important features: an engrossing storyline, a good dose of humor, and the right mix of challenging but enjoyable puzzles. I wanted to make a game that weighed heavily on the fun factor scale, and also had the professional-quality production values to back it up. I knew it would be fun, and I knew it would be a lot of work. What I didn’t know was just how much fun—or how much work—that would be.

But now here I am, a few months in and finally I’m ready to begin adding new layers to the story outline. This is where the game’s production paths start to diverge. With the basic storyline and backstory firmly in hand, I can start to work on the “details phase” in which I hammer out everything there is to know about each game location, each character relationship, each puzzle—and how they all fit together. And I can also begin serious work on the visual design phase, which involves everything from animating character sprites to drawing and coloring each room background.

But before I branch off in those directions, I’d like to take a step back and bring into focus the visual aspects of the pre-production phase. As I was working on the storyline, I also spent some time trying to visualize the different ideas that came from those brainstorming sessions. This was helpful because it got me thinking visually—something very important in a graphic adventure—and it also became a two-way street where ideas from the storyline were influencing the puzzles, and ideas from the puzzles began to cry out for inclusion in the storyline.

Here’s a transcript of what I jotted down in my design notebook, followed by a glimpse into the pre-production visuals that sprang from it.

In a dusty red rock desert, you come across a rock formation protruding into the sky like a tall, thin cone, with a horizontal “beak-like” outcropping at the very tip. This is Vulture Rock, and it’s dotted with nests along the surface. There also appears to be a long and very precarious-looking trail that winds back and forth (on and off the screen, perhaps) up to the top. At the very tip, where the “beak” juts out, there’s a nest all the way at the end. Walking to it would be fatal, because it would snap and fall under your weight. This is unfortunate because, of course, you need to retrieve something from the nest.

The idea for Vulture Rock came to me after I wrote the words “strange rock formation” in one of my early brainstorming sessions. It stuck with me because I thought that, visually, it would be a pretty cool place for the hero to have to visit and navigate, and it seemed to make sense in a desert context. It’s also full of puzzle possibilities.

Notice, though, that at this point all I’ve done is suggest an obstacle—you need to get something in the nest, which is dangerously out of reach—but I didn’t pose any solutions. That’s become one of my key design strategies. This phase of the game development is about creating obstacles for the hero; in the next phase I’ll start to fill in the solutions. I have a few ideas about how to solve the puzzle, but I try to keep those thoughts separate until I’ve established every in-game location and obstacle throughout the game, or at least throughout a particular game area.

Then I’ll begin to look at different ways to relate locations and items to each other, and in turn to relate multiple layers of different puzzles to each other, so that I can increase or decrease the level of complexity for each puzzle based on the needs of the story at that particular point. I don’t want to rely on inventory-based puzzles at every turn, and this seems to be a good way of keeping a number of possibilities on the table.

On to the next conceptual element: a Wild West jail cell that also stems from a few words I’d jotted down earlier. In fact, initially I’d even thought about starting the game with the hero having to escape from a jail cell, but in the end I couldn’t make it work in the context of the story. Instead I filed the idea away, and found a natural place for it later in the game after I’d fleshed out the who, what, and where surrounding the treasure’s backstory.

You’re in a typical Old West jail cell in a typical Old West town. Unfortunately, you get to see the cell from the inside. There’s a barred window set into the crumbling side wall of the cell overlooking a back alley, and beneath the window lies a slumped-over skeleton with one arm clearly outstretched and visible. The rest of the sheriff’s office is visible on the other side of the bars, and through them you can see a desk, bookshelves, a bottle of moonshine, and a longhorn skull strung up on the wall. A deputy sheriff paces back and forth across the room nervously, glaring at you as he moves.

Here I didn’t focus as much on the problem because it’s self-evident: The hero is locked up and needs to find a way to escape. I’ve always liked these kinds of closed room puzzles because it’s clear that the game is going to supply you with everything you need to piece together an escape—if you can figure out what you’re supposed to do. I envision this as a complex (but fairly intuitive) puzzle that will force the player to give it serious consideration before completing it.

That’s all I’ve got for this time. Next month, I’ll move away from this preliminary concept work and into the early phases of actual game production.

Next: Forming a design team, and storyboarding the game one location at a time

This blog entry originally appeared at Adventure Gamers.

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