Archive for July, 2008

So, where were we? Oh, that’s right: Animation. This month, I’ll discuss the use of in-game animated sequences to add richness to your adventure game world and—

What? Why are you looking at me like that?

Two years? TWO YEARS?!? Has it really been TWO YEARS since my last Adventure Architect installment? Yikes. Okay, I guess it has been a while.

In my defense, I’ve been busy. I bought a house, became a dad, and lost a kidney (in that order). But you don’t care, do you? Some of you are reading this because you want to know what’s up with Rise of the Hidden Sun. The rest of you are probably like, “What the hell is Rise of the Hidden Sun?”

I get it. This article—this cautionary tale, I should say—is for both kinds of readers.

A re-introduction

When I first announced that I was developing a game called Rise of the Hidden Sun, I had visions of it being the next Fate of Atlantis or Monkey Island. I was practically raised on those games in the ’80s and ’90s and had wanted to make one of my own for as long as I could remember. As a kid I designed countless text adventures using the programming language BASIC, and I always thought that some day I’d move to California and go work for Sierra On-Line, which at the time was the definitive adventure game publisher.

Unfortunately, Sierra stopped making adventures at basically the same time that I graduated from college—so there was to be no “Adventure Game Designer” job title in my future. That is, until I discovered Adventure Game Studio, a do-it-yourself game design program that was both free and easy to use.

So back in 2003 I decided to put my spare time into the creation of my own game, and I settled on a Wild West setting, an Indiana Jones-like hero, an epic treasure hunt, and a largely comedic backdrop. I spent about eight months hammering out the plot, the dialogue, the characters, and the puzzles in what is to this day probably the best and most polished work of creative writing I’ve ever completed.

You can read it about all that in the previous thirteen installments of this column, but the gist is that this game wasn’t going to feel like an amateur game. No, no. This was going to have professional production values from the writing and music to the background art and animation.

For a while, everything went according to plan. Using this column as a recruiting vehicle, I was able to bring in some top-notch talent from the Underground adventure game community to work on the game. I acted as the lead writer, project coordinator, and de facto art director, making sure that everything met a certain standard and had a consistent “feel” to it from artist to artist.

The biggest problem with any project like this, though, is attrition. People who volunteer their time over the Internet just don’t stick around to finish what they’ve started. (Just ask the nice folks here at Adventure Gamers, who’ve been waiting for this very article for a couple years now!) There are exceptions, of course, but they’re just that—exceptions to the rule.

About two years ago, at roughly the time that I stopped writing this column on a regular basis, I made the decision to start paying people to work on Rise of the Hidden Sun. I couldn’t pay much—I had always planned on it being freeware—but I paid what I could, and did my best to keep costs down wherever possible.

Obviously using my own money to fund a freeware game wasn’t a good business model, but that’s why I’d named my design studio after the U.S. bankruptcy laws: I’d probably go broke running Chapter 11 Studios the way I was running it, but I was determined to make Rise of the Hidden Sun the best damn freeware adventure game ever made.

Animation is the game killer

It’s fitting that I never got around to discussing animation before now, because the one thing I’ve learned in the past two years is that animation can be a game killer. If I’d set out to make a less ambitious game with low-res art or more amateurish production values—as, to be honest, I probably should have—it would have been relatively easy to find some pixel pushers to help with the animation, or even do it myself. I’m decent enough with Photoshop.

But no, I wanted the best. I wanted a Disney-quality production. So I held out. I searched freelance art forums. I contacted art schools. I looked all over for a traditionally trained animator or animators who’d be willing to work for what I could afford to pay. I was always pretty good at finding background artists and painters to match the style I’d established for this game, but finding an animator was a different story.

I thought I’d finally solved the problem for good last June when I began working with a professionally trained animator out of Savannah, Georgia. Not only was he willing to work for short money, but his work was good. Damn good. He was fast, willing to listen to my suggestions, and responsive to my emails. Together we made more progress on the animation front in two months than I had in the previous year and a half. It was a revelation. The characters in Rise of the Hidden Sun were coming to life before my very eyes. After years of searching, I’d found my animator!

Or not. Because this animator, like the ones before him, eventually stopped producing. Progress updates became less and less frequent. The quality of the work dropped significantly when he did get around to sending me something. Eventually we parted ways, and I was left to wonder (not for the first time) if I’d just bitten off more than I could chew. Could I ever get Rise of the Hidden Sun made as a freeware game?

If I really wanted it to be professional quality, it seemed, the only way to make sure that happened was to adopt a more professional approach—and that meant a for-profit model that would make it an actual business. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, I could embrace the do-it-all-myself approach and be the game’s chief artist and animator, which would ensure that it would get done—but would it even feel like the same game by the time I finished it?

So there I was, standing at a crossroads in the game’s development, and I had no idea which road to take.

Back to the drawing board… literally

I’m a few months removed from the shock of losing my last animator, and I’m still committed to making Rise of the Hidden Sun a freeware game. Truth is, I already have a career that I enjoy and don’t want a second one working on a for-profit adventure game. I don’t need the hassle of deadlines, either.

So for now, I continue to chip away at my to-do list whenever I can. A background screen here. A sound effect there. Here a new line of dialogue, there a tweak to a puzzle. The first of the game’s four acts is almost completely done, except for a few outstanding character animations. And, I’ve contracted a new and promising animator to take a shot at touching up the unfinished work left by my previous animator. Hope springs eternal.

Will I ever finish the game? Yes. Will it be soon? No, not so much. And that’s why I’m planning to “disappear” until I have something new to report. The next time you hear from me—maybe a month from now, maybe next year, maybe five years from now—it’ll be because the first act of the game is done and ready to download.

Kids, don’t try this at home

Me, I don’t really have any regrets. I’m creating this game my way, and while it is taking forever and costing me a small fortune, I know the end product will be personally satisfying. The fact that it’ll still be freeware will make it doubly so.

That said, if there’s one thing you should learn from my experiences, it’s this: don’t follow my example. When people say start small—do it. Finish a few little games before setting your sights on something bigger. Prove yourself before you try recruiting a team to build something more ambitious. That’s the right way to do it. That’s the only way to do it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go disregard my own advice.

This blog post originally appeared at AdventureGamers.

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