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Archive for the ‘Adventure Architect’ Category

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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Well, here we are. Unlucky column number thirteen. Last time, I discussed my theory for character creation, including developing a unique personality, physical appearance, and back story. Flowing directly from that is the subject of this installment: interacting with the game world.

Graphical User Interface

The graphical user interface (GUI) is a technobabble term for the game’s method of allowing the user to interact with the game environment. Most adventure games from the “golden age” of the 1980s and early 1990s used one of two basic GUI concepts: the Sierra-style icon GUI or the LucasArts-style word tree GUI.

With Adventure Game Studio (the game engine I’m using for Rise of the Hidden Sun), it’s easy to implement either of these GUIs. There are also numerous plug-ins floating around the Web that allow users to import other GUI applications like the LucasArts “verb coin” seen in Curse of Monkey Island. And, of course, those with some programming savvy can always code and design their own GUI.

Since I’m neither all that savvy when it comes to coding, nor all that interested in reinventing the wheel, I decided to stick with the basics provided by AGS. In a head-to-head battle between Sierra-style and original LucasArts style, it’s really a matter of personal preference because both have their benefits and drawbacks. As I see it, it breaks down something like this:

1) The Sierra-style icon-based GUI is a simple, mostly unobtrusive way of interacting with the game world in which players simply select an icon (“look”) and an object/character (“old prospector”) to generate a result. There are a relatively small number of interactive combinations available to the player, and consequently fewer responses to write and code.

2) The LucasArts-style word tree GUI is a more sophisticated (and complicated) tool that allows players to build complex interactions by clicking on a series of words and objects, e.g. “chop down the decidedly strange-looking cactus with the samurai sword.” Using this style of GUI usually provides ample opportunity for complex interactions and humor (via word selection and adjectives). The drawbacks, though, are a visually intrusive interface and the sheer amount of responses necessary.

Space Quest GUI

I decided to go with the icon-based GUI made popular by Sierra. It seemed fitting because in many ways this game is a direct descendant of the original Sierra games (as many people have observed, much of the game takes place in Old Sierra Valley, and the name is no coincidence). It also meant I could concentrate on a smaller—though still intimidating—number of interactive combinations. Using the Quest for Glory series as a model, I felt confident that I could still infuse the game with an offbeat sense of humor.

Soon after picking the icon-based GUI, I got to work in crafting the appearance of the icons. The AGS engine comes with default black and white icons similar to those in the very first icon-based Sierra games like King’s Quest V and Space Quest IV. These are perfectly functional but—let’s face it—pretty ugly.

My GUI

I wanted to create something that would seamlessly fit into the Wild West environment of Rise of the Hidden Sun. After some back and forth discussions about how to accomplish this with one of the project’s artists, Dan Lee, we decided to give the icons an old-fashioned distressed leather look. And, instead of the traditional “eye” for the “look” action and “foot” for “walk,” I again wanted to create Wild West-specific icons. The result: GUI icons that enhance, rather than distract from, the game world.

One important note about the presence of the GUI panel at the top of the game screen. The AGS engine allows the option to either permanently place the GUI panel on the screen, or hide it until the player moves the mouse cursor to the top of the screen. I chose the latter approach, keeping the GUI as unobtrusive as possible. The player can also select the different icons by right-clicking to scroll through the actions rather than moving the cursor to the top of the screen.

That’s all I have for this installment. Next time, I hope to tackle the subject of in-game animations.

This blog post originally appeared at Adventure Gamers.

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Think about your favorite adventure games. Gabriel Knight. Monkey Island. Broken Sword. Grim Fandango. The Longest Journey. The stories are very different, but they each have one thing in common: great characters. Whether the goal is to make your way through the Land of the Dead or solve the mystery of the Templars, the reason you care about your quest at all is because you like the characters in the game.

Sure, graphics contribute to the atmosphere. The story is crucial, too, and puzzles are important if for no other reason than that bad puzzles can ruin an otherwise perfectly good game. But there’s nothing—NOTHING—more critical than good characters. And when it comes to characters, none are more important than the main character, who becomes the player’s eyes, ears, and personality in the game world.

Developing an authentic and engaging hero can be a daunting task. Trust me, I speak from experience.

Building character

Enter ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake Dawson, the hero of my upcoming adventure game, Rise of the Hidden Sun. Jake sprang from my imagination as a distant, Wild West relative of Indiana Jones, with maybe a touch of Guybrush Threepwood on the side of the family that no one wants to talk about.

In my mind, the main character has to accomplish at least two things in the game. The first is to become a part of the game world, which involves giving him or her a quest that makes sense within the world you’re creating. The second, and perhaps more important role, is to become an alter ego that the player wants to identify with.

I may be nothing like Guybrush in real life (in fact, I hope I’m not), but I liked becoming him in Monkey Island. The Monkey Island series developed this by making Guybrush into a sympathetic character with personality, wit, sarcasm, and ineptitude that became downright charming. And for this, we loved him.

Not every hero needs to have this same balance. The hero can be perfectly capable, or brave, or intelligent. April Ryan of The Longest Journey is all of these things, and we like her, too. The important thing is that the character has a personality that matches the game world you, as a developer, are trying to create.

In the case of Jake Dawson, I started with a storyline and a setting, and played around with a lot of different types of characters that might work. Would Jake be an inept hero like Roger Wilco? Would he be just an ordinary guy like George Stobbart from Broken Sword? Would he be a career adventurer like Indiana Jones?

As the story took shape in my mind, it began to make sense that Jake should be someone who would doggedly pursue his quest, and the next question I had to ask was, “What is his motive?” Does he want to find this lost treasure out of greed? Financial desperation? Because he likes a challenge? Because the fate of the world hangs in the balance? Because he wants to win the heart of a pretty lady? Because he has nothing better to do?

Any one of these motives is a starting point, and each leads to a different kind of character. They’re also not mutually exclusive. Maybe he’s just desperate enough to go on a treasure hunt, but over the course of the story he also learns that there’s more at stake than just a pile of gold. Do his motives change as the story progresses? In what ways does he grow and evolve as a character?

Anatomy of a hero

After I got a good sense of who Jake is and what makes him tick, my next challenge was a visual one. What does this character look like? It’s one thing to tell people he’s a down-on-his-luck cowboy. It’s quite another to show it. The design for the character needs to match the concept behind him.

I wrote a timeline of Jake’s life. I figured out how he got to where he is when the game starts. I decided that by the start of the first episode, he’s been beaten down a little by the world. He’s not going to be wearing new clothes. His shirt is probably a little dirty, and almost certainly wrinkled and well worn. He’s sort of morally ambivalent, so he wouldn’t be wearing a white hat. He’s also likely to have a five o’ clock shadow and probably be a month or two behind getting his hair cut. These are the kind of details that are important to transfer to the look of the character.

Talk is cheap… or is it?

Adventure games are different than almost every other gaming genre because they typically involve copious amounts of dialogue. You can look at or interact with just about everything you see on the screen. That means that the hero of the game will probably comment on the things you see and do, which gives developers a chance to define characters by their words and actions in a way that isn’t available in most other types of games. If you do it correctly, it can solidify the bond between the player and the character.

It’s important to make sure that the character’s dialogue matches his personality. As a developer, my first charge is to know my character. How would he react if a homicidal mime suddenly jumped out from behind a bush? Would he be scared? Amused? Skeptical? Indifferent? Whatever the answer, my next charge is to write a response to the event that reflects his internal reaction to it, and remains consistent with the characteristics I’ve already established in other scenes.

In Rise of the Hidden Sun, for example, Jake encounters an old prospector who recognizes him as the ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake Dawson of a popular cowboy song. How Jake responds to this will reveal a lot about the character. Is he flattered? Shy? Annoyed? And, depending on the tone I’m trying to set in the game, is his response funny? Let’s take a look at how I handled it, and see what it reveals about Jake.

OLD PROSPECTOR: Say, you got a name there, fella?
JAKE: I’m Jake Dawson.
OLD PROSPECTOR: Jake Dawson…?
OLD PROSPECTOR: *THE* Jake Dawson?
OLD PROSPECTOR: Yer that rattlesnake feller I done heard so much about!
OLD PROSPECTOR: ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake, they calls ya. Deadliest gunfighter west o’ the Mississippi.
OLD PROSPECTOR: Yuh even got yer own ballad!
JAKE: I do? [Turns to audience.] This could be embarrassing.
OLD PROSPECTOR: Now let’s see if I remember how it goes.
OLD PROSPECTOR: [Singing] Weeeell… Born in an alley, an’ raised in a valley, with a gun gripped in ‘is hand…
JAKE: Thank you. Really. Please stop.
OLD PROSPECTOR: [Singing] He’ll kiss yer sister Sally, just addin’ to his tally, he’s the fastest draw in the land…
JAKE: Seriously. Stop now. [Draws gun]
OLD PROSPECTOR: Har, I bet that ain’t even loaded. I bet you wouldn’t shoot an old man like me.
JAKE: Bet how much, exactly?
OLD PROSPECTOR: Er… I’ll stop.
JAKE: Right. [Puts gun away]
OLD PROSPECTOR: Ahah. Hah. Ahah. Say now, what’s a famous gunslinger like you doin’ here in Old Sierra valley anyway? Ain’t ya heard this here town’s seen better days?

So what does this conversation reveal about Jake? For one thing, it shows that he’s not exactly thrilled about the fact that there’s a ballad written in his honor. (Which opens up another question—why isn’t he thrilled about it?) It also shows that he’s not someone to simply “take it” when someone annoys him. He’s morally ambiguous enough that he’ll pull a gun on an unarmed man, though here it’s used as much for comic effect as for defining the character. And the whole exchange is also, I hope, somewhat amusing.

Conclusion

There’s no one way to build a character. My methods may be entirely different than yours. In fact, I often think there must be an easier way to do it. But the key is to find something that works for you, and not be afraid to ask others to critique your work. If your character is supposed to be cynical but sympathetic, let someone read what you’re writing and tell you if you’re succeeding. You might learn that the character is coming across as too cynical, and is hard to like because of it. Or, hopefully, you’ll be encouraged by the feedback and find that you’ve hit exactly the right notes to achieve your desired effect.

That’s all for this month. Next time, I’ll talk about building the user interface that lets players interact with the game world.

This blog post originally appeared at Adventure Gamers.

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Probably the best part about designing my own adventure game is that I get to be closely involved in all of the interesting parts of the project, from generating plot and puzzle ideas to acting as the de facto art director and all around supreme overlord of my own little universe. And probably the worst part of my “job” is that I also have to be intimately involved in all of the boring stuff, too—the who, what, where, when, and (most importantly) how of it all.

As a project like this grows from a few ideas here and there into a massive undertaking involving volunteers from different continents, there has to be some dark, shadowy figure in the background, pulling all the strings and making sure that everything goes according to plan. This is where I come in, armed with my razor sharp project management skills (yeah, right) and the Mother of All Microsoft Word Documents.

After more than a year of coordinating the work of background artists, musicians, animators, and my own plot and puzzle elements, I think I’ve come up with a process that works. At least, it works for me. But keep in mind that I was just as clueless as anyone else who walks into a project like this without any previous game design experience, so my ideas aren’t necessary better or worse than anyone else’s would be—they’re just, well, mine.

The first thing I did was create the game design bible, or as I like to call it, The Document That Ate My Life. It gives an overview of the game itself—the background history leading into the game, the character descriptions and motivations, and the general plot outline from start to finish. (And, yes, I’ll admit that I even explore a few ideas for a sequel near the end. Can you say… franchise?)

This hellish design document is also home to a list of screen descriptions, inventory items used and acquired, necessary actions that the player can perform on each screen, et cetera. Basically, if it happens in the game, it’s described in here. It’s not meant to be read straight through from start to finish, though—it just gives an overview of what can happen on each screen. Here’s a partial entry describing the game’s very first screen:

Jake finds himself at a crossroads overlooking the town of Old Sierra. There’s an intersection leading in four directions, and in the middle of the path stands a tall signpost with arrows pointing in three of the four directions. Words like “Haunted Mine—Keep Out” and “Danger, Falling Rocks” have been sloppily painted onto each arrow. The trail behind Jake winds off-screen before returning near the outskirts of town, visible in the valley way off in the distance.
 
Jake can walk to the haunted mine (Screen # 002), to the falling rocks area (Screen # 004), and to the overlook (Screen # 006). He can’t go back into town (Screen # 022) until he completes all of the required actions in episode one. He starts with three inventory items: A treasure map, a six-shooter, and one bullet. (Poor guy, he’s down to his last one.)

Each entry in The Document That Ate My Life also includes the list of actions available to Jake, and the responses these actions will generate from the game. The first screen alone lists more than 20 potential actions specific to that screen. Here are a few examples:

Action: Jake looks at the signpost.
Result 1: Jake says, “It’s a signpost.”
Result 2: Jake then turns to the audience and says, “Sometimes even I’m impressed with my powers of observation.”

Action: Jake attempts to use his loaded six-shooter on the signpost.
Result 1: Jake says, “I think I’ll save my last bullet for something a little more threatening.”

Another important document that I maintain is the walkthrough, which lists the shortest possible route for completing the game. It’s useful for players who just want to get from start to finish, but I also use it as a de facto design document that helps me keep tabs on the linear development of the game. It’s my crib sheet of what needs to be animated, what musical cues we need when a certain event occurs, et cetera. For example, on Screen # 012 of the game, the walkthrough lists the following three actions:

  1. Jake smashes the door lock and chains with the pickaxe
  2. The broken chains fall to the ground
  3. Jake opens the door

This way, when I’m working on each screen I know that I need to animate, code, and create sound effects for these actions. I also know that for any unfinished screens, I need to make sure that the background art can accommodate those animations. The walkthrough also acts as a sort of unfinished assets list for me. An “asset” is any visual or audio element of the game that needs to be created—an inventory item, a sound effect, a movable object, that kind of thing. The unfinished assets list is like a great big to-do list, and so in some ways it’s my own little game designer’s walkthrough.

All right, well that about sums it up for this time. Hopefully this made sense—I’m doing my best to walk a fine line between using specific examples from my game and not giving away all the stuff that I want you to discover as part of the game-playing experience.

Next: Character Design, Hopefully

This blog entry originally appeared at Adventure Gamers.

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This installment was initially supposed to focus on character creation and design, but I still need little more time to refine the visuals on our reluctant, rough-around-the-edges cowboy-turned-treasure-hunter. Instead, I’ll use this installment to fill you in on a couple of huge developments in the design process since the last time I wrote.

First, in the tradition of the Saturday afternoon cliffhangers of yesteryear, I’ve decided to release the game in four connected chapters (or episodes) rather than waiting until the entire game is finished to unveil the story. This required a little bit of rewriting (or, to be more precise, expanding) of the first episode to bring the length of the first chapter more into line with the others. But now that it’s done, each of the episodes ends on a cliffhanger that leads directly into the next installment.

And, when all four chapters are completed, I’ll release a compiled version of the entire game as well, with (possibly) some special features like a voice pack, behind-the-scenes concept art, and maybe even a sneak peak at the next big project on the way. (And if you’re wondering what that is, check past installments of this very column.)

I think the benefits of releasing the game in episodic form are evident, but if not, here are a few that come to mind:

  • First, we’ll get the game out to players sooner rather than later, rewarding both those who have been looking forward to playing it and those of us who have been toiling away for what seems likes ages making it. (And, bonus, instead of getting a playable demo, you get a fully working first chapter!)
  • Second, each episode will build excitement for the next.
  • Third, we’ll hopefully get another big promotional push when we release the entire game in compiled form on CD.
  • And last but not least, it allows me as project manager to divide the game into smaller portions and set up a reasonable production schedule in which everyone involved can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

So, right now a lot of effort is going directly into finishing up and expanding the first episode. But that doesn’t mean that we won’t be working on the rest of the game at the same time. I am dividing the work on each episode into different teams, making sure that when episode one is being worked on and completed, episodes two, three, and four are already in development as well.

It roughly breaks down like this: The bulk of animation, sound effects, and scripting work will be going into episode one, while the bulk of music, pencil art, and coloring will be going into episodes two and three. Episode four, while entirely plotted, has yet to be developed into a functioning game environment, so I am putting my time and energy on that front into creating concept art that will eventually form the basis of the background screens.

Meanwhile, you may recall that I promised at the start of this column to fill you in on two huge developments. What’s the second one? This time, it’s some team news. I’m thrilled to report that Dan Lee, whose amazing coloring work you’ve all oohed and ahhed at in the past, is stepping up to become the project’s lead animator for episode one. This is especially great for two reasons—not only has Dan been part of the project since nearly the very beginning, but he also designed many of the characters himself.

Dan is also developing his own custom sprite animating software to speed up the process. Expect more on this, and animation in general, in future installments.

Anyway, that’s all for this month. Next time, I’ll write about how I divide and keep track of the technical and not-so-technical work needed for each episode.

Next: The unfinished assets checklist (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Project Management)

This blog entry originally appeared at Adventure Gamers.

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You know that saying about the best-laid plans of mice and men? Like, how they often go awry? Well, I would hereby like to officially nominate amateur adventure game designers in general, and myself in particular, to our rightful spot next to mice and men in that vast pantheon of those whose plans don’t always work out.

It turns out I’ve made a few missteps as project coordinator for this, my first foray into adventure game design. Not fatal mistakes. Not project-killing flaws, by any means. But the boneheaded, what-the-heck-was-I-thinking variety. And those oversights only became evident to me after I started to plug all of the game’s various design elements—backgrounds, objects, animations, music, sound effects, et cetera—into the Adventure Game Studio engine to try building a functioning game environment.

You see, with the story and plot now complete, the puzzles for Acts I and II finished, background work and layouts underway for all four acts, and a top-notch animator finally on board, it was time. Time to test out the game engine. Time to stretch its legs a bit. Time to really get down to business.

And then all hell broke loose.

Because, it turns out, I’m an idiot. I waited too long to firm up the screen size and corresponding character sprite size, and having never made a game before, I hadn’t even considered the issue of exact proportions. Certainly I knew that the character sprites had to be relatively proportional to other objects on the screen, but I somehow skipped the step where I actually measured in pixels what those proportions would be. I was, in retrospect, just relying on the game engine’s ability to scale characters as a catch-all for anything that I couldn’t simply eyeball at the right proportion.

Bad idea. The kind of idea that probably gets professional game producers fired, in fact. Fortunately, I work for free, and I hired myself, so I get to keep my job.

As you’ll see below, the very first screen of Act I—which has been my pride, joy, and inspiration for lo these many months—has two problems that I didn’t notice when we turned our layouts into the finished screen that I planned to use in the game. First, the signpost in the middle of the path is far too large. Monstrously so, in fact, when compared to a reasonably sized character sprite. And second, that same signpost in the middle of the path is literally in the middle of the path! Duh, Josh. This makes maneuvering around it infinitely more difficult than necessary.

Oops! Jake Is a Small Man in a Very Big World

I ran into similar problems on other screens as well. In one, for example, the character sprite for Jake is required to walk across a railroad bridge looming over a large canyon. Unfortunately, the gaps between the boards were so wide that Jake appeared to “float” over the empty space when, technically, he should have ended up falling tragically to his death. Another screen found him completing a puzzle that required him to build a ladder to reach a ledge that, all things being equal, was pretty much about shoulder high.

In all, these proportion issues affected about 10 screens. Of those 10, half were easily fixed with Paint Shop Pro, a few are currently undergoing the kind of massive restoration usually reserved for fading Renaissance paintings, and two are just plain unsalvageable. It could have been a lot worse, though. I was able to immediately put the brakes on all background screen production, work with the artists to get the correct the proportions on each layout sketch, and resume progress without missing a beat.

Gone But Not Forgotten!

So what did I learn? Well, for one thing, I should have decided on the screen resolution and character sprite size beforehand. In fact, I probably should have created a sprite or two at the very beginning of the process in order to test each screen before moving it into final production.
 
I also discovered that I have a tendency to squeeze too many things into each screen. If I’d kept those screens as I had initially conceived them, I probably would have had to scale down the character sprite in order to squeeze him into the scene.

Fortunately, I caught my mistake before the project moved too much further along. The end result, then, was a brief moment of panic followed by a comprehensive review and assessment of every game asset. Basically, a speed bump instead of a train wreck.

And production continues.

Next: Anatomy of a Hero (Or, ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake Gets Animated!)

This blog entry originally appeared at Adventure Gamers.

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Okay, yes, I’ll admit it. This column is ridiculously late. So late, in fact, that some of you may have wondered if I’d dropped off the face of the planet altogether. And the truth is, I almost did—I set off on a summer-long backpacking adventure across Europe, which was followed by some major changes at home once I got back, and capped off by the Red Sox’s devastating loss to the Yankees a few months later.

(I’m a Boston guy. The rest of you wouldn’t understand, but trust me, the only thing worse than the Red Sox losing in October is the Red Sox losing to the Yankees in October!)

Anyway, the end result was that Adventure Architect fell to the bottom of my priority list for a while. The good news in all this? Although this design journal was silent, work on the game itself continued at a satisfying clip. We’re putting the finishing touches on several absolutely gorgeous new game screens from Act IV, finished plotting a gigantic portion of Acts II and III, and oh yes, completely redesigned our website to highlight some of the most exciting elements of ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake Dawson’s first adventure. So, we’ve been pretty busy.

And now, on to this month’s topic—puzzle design. Although I firmly believe that the story is the most important element of any adventure game, puzzles are a close second. Make them too easy and the game is over in a few hours. Make them too hard or too obscure and it can ruin the entire game. But when done right, the best puzzles become a seamless part of the story, and as a player you don’t so much notice them as puzzles as you do experience them as part of the natural flow of the narrative.

As I mentioned in an earlier column, I wanted to start off Rise of the Hidden Sun with a series of easy puzzles that helps the player get comfortable with the game and the story while also building a little sense of accomplishment. I think that starting that way also helps players become absorbed in the story in a way that throwing a brain-twister at them too early wouldn’t allow. Once they get comfortable, that’s when you start to turn up the heat a little and make them work to get past each new obstacle.

When I sat down to start literally devising ways to keep Jake from accomplishing his quest (I had a bad month of September, and I got through it by thinking of ways to make Jake’s life miserable), I used three basic steps for each puzzle or series of puzzles, based on my own observations of what works—and what doesn’t work—in the games I’ve played over the years.

Step 1: Start with a story element

In the final act of Rise of the Hidden Sun, Jake finds himself in the middle of the Arizona desert, standing before a strange rock formation that looks suspiciously like a sand-swept desert version of Stonehenge. The idea came to me about a year ago when, as I researched the game environment, I noticed that the American Southwest tends to produce lots of very strange rock formations. It made me wonder what I might be able to do with that in my game.

As I developed the story, I came to the conclusion that the Stonehenge formation would make a great entry point to Jake’s final destination: the underground city of Cíbola. If the formation had fallen into disrepair due to the disappearance of Cibola’s ancestral guardians, I could build a puzzle around having to restore the formation to its original state, which might in turn create an opening into the caverns below.

Step 2: Set a goal and create some obstacles

Because I tend to think visually when I’m designing a new game environment, I began to sketch out possible layouts for the scene. In one sketch, part of the Stonehenge formation had collapsed in on itself and needed to be repaired. I asked myself questions after each version of the scene: Why would Jake need to fix the formation? How would he—and the player—know what he needed to do, and how to do it?

I did a few more sketches and inserted a stone pinnacle in the middle of the formation, along with a hint of an opening that revealed the caverns below. I was beginning to visualize a connection between the stone circle above and the caverns below. After some more experimentation, I ended up designing a two-tiered puzzle in which Jake’s actions above ground would affect the environment underground.

I decided to allow Jake to have immediate access to the caverns below, which would enable him to see his goal (the entrance to the underground city) and the obstacle (something about the strange formation needed to be changed in order to open the entrance below).

Figure 1: Before and After Jake Makes a Few 'Adjustments' to the Rock Structure

Step 3: Work backwards to build the puzzle

Now that I knew what stood in Jake’s way, I had to figure out how he’d solve the problem. After pulling out most of my hair trying to figure out what would be a fair way of blocking Jake’s path (I’m still young enough that most of the hair grows back, thankfully), I came up with what I thought was a fairly complex and rewarding puzzle that built off of a number of things that the player would have learned in earlier parts of the game. (By remembering things that Jake had discovered about the ancient society that built the underground city, for example.)

The puzzle would also involve some trial and error, some back-and-forth between different screens above- and belowground, and the use of an ordinary inventory item in an unusual way. I decided, for example, that Jake would need some sort of silver reflective material to mimic an element that was already part of the “Stonehenge” environment, so I went back into the design document and added a silver serving platter as an object that Jake would need to acquire at an earlier point in the game—in this case, as part of Act III, which involves a train robbery. (This is yet another reason to plot out the entire game before you start coding or illustrating.)

Finally, the puzzle would require the player to do things in a certain order, so in designing it I knew that I needed to leave enough hints as to what Jake would need to accomplish, and also allow for trial and error to let the player do things in the wrong order while allowing him to correct the mistake at any time.

Figure 2: The 'Adjustment' Pays Off by Altering Things Belowground

Types of puzzles

This is just one example of puzzle building within the context of the story. Most puzzles don’t involve so many working parts, and there are many different types of puzzles that can be used to keep the story moving while still presenting obstacles along the way. The key is variety. Too many inventory or dialogue puzzles are just downright boring, so in my case I’ve tried to think of different ways to keep things interesting.

In the next column—and by that I mean, hopefully, next month—I’ll talk about beginning the actual production of the game: Taking all of the various design elements and plugging them into the game engine to build a functioning game environment.

Next: Building a working adventure game!

This blog entry originally appeared at Adventure Gamers.

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It seems like years ago, but I’ve only been working on my adventure game for about seven or eight months now. Since August of 2002, when this whole thing started, it’s grown in scale and scope to encompass its own website, a series of (sometimes) monthly columns, and a design team working to make the idea of ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake Dawson and Rise of the Hidden Sun a reality.

And so, perhaps not surprisingly, we’re not even close to finishing it yet.

Considering how much time, effort, and caffeine has already gone into the project, though, I’ve heard from at least a few people who think we should be done by now. But amateur game design is a hobby for me, and I have a personal life—or something that occasionally resembles one—that needs my attention, too. It took me dozens of abandoned projects before I realized the guiding principle that makes this game different than anything else I’ve ever started: It pays to goof off every now and then.

Sure, I give myself deadlines and keep to a self-imposed production schedule, but there’s also something to be said for the magic of plopping down in front of the TV and leaving the world of concept sketches, walk cycles, and puzzle design behind for a few hours. It’s about balance. Game design, like any long creative process, has its ups and downs. It has bursts of creative energy when everything seems to come easy, and it has days when doing something else—doing anything else—is more appealing.

Sometimes it’s okay to give in. The best way to keep fresh is to make time for other hobbies as well. I set aside a few days every week when I won’t even think about my game. The reverse of that, obviously, is that I also make sure to plan for a few nights after work every week when I will dig into the project. By finding that balance, it’s easier to keep a schedule and avoid a creative burnout. And while the process is slower than if I spent every waking hour outside of my day job working on the adventures of Jake Dawson, it’s also more likely to get finished this way.

I’ve also found that my work environment affects my productivity. When I try to work at my apartment, even when I’m by myself, there are just too many distractions for my attention span-challenged brain to avoid. So instead I take my laptop to a local café a few nights a week and work on my game from there. I’m still amazed at how much more I can accomplish simply by getting out and making a night of it. It’s more fun, too, since I don’t feel like I’m working in complete isolation, either.

As the project coordinator, I’ve assigned myself responsibilities ranging from screen-by-screen conceptual layouts to managing the sound effects and music to writing every line of dialogue. The upside of becoming a game design jack-of-all-trades is that there’s never an end to the work that needs to be done. And since I’m running the project on my own schedule, I can usually switch between the different creative modes whenever I begin to get worn out by any particular part of the design process. If the dialogue for a particular conversation between Jake and another character just isn’t coming naturally to me, I can switch to concept art or puzzle design. Or, as the case may be every now and then, I can put aside a few hours and write this column.

The flexibility means that there’s always something fresh to work on. Since I find that the easiest work—in terms of my creative impulses—is the concept art, I usually start by sketching out whichever section of the game that I plan to work on that night, and seeing where my sketches take me. Often it paves the way for new puzzles or story elements that I hadn’t fully worked out beforehand.

And speaking of puzzle design, that leads me to the topic for next time: the process of integrating puzzles within a story. I’ve spent my last two columns discussing things that are external to the game itself, but starting next time I’ll be digging back into the actual design process and focusing on my strategy for creating puzzles that work within the story rather than in spite of it.

Next: The art of puzzle design

This blog entry originally appeared at Adventure Gamers.

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If you’ve read my previous columns—and judging from the e-mails I’ve been getting since last time, at least some of you think I should be writing these little missives a bit faster than I have been—you’re probably aware that I’m trying to make my first foray into adventure game design a memorable one.

It’s a game that’s being created under the banner of my very own not-for-profit creative outlet, Chapter 11 Studios. And, as of this column, I’m happy to announce that it also finally, officially, has a working title! Rise of the Hidden Sun: A “Rattlesnake” Jake Dawson Adventure is set to be the first game released by Chapter 11, though certainly not the last. In fact, I’m a little hesitant to even mention it, but currently Rise of the Hidden Sun is slated to be just the first in a series of Jake Dawson adventures, the second of which will be the equally over-the-top Curse of the Hidden Sun. How’s that for getting in way over my head—err, I mean, thinking ahead?

I’m now several months into the production of the first Jake Dawson adventure, and as I mentioned last time, I’ve quietly begun to recruit some truly talented amateur artists to join efforts with me on the project. And now that I’ve completed the game’s critical early design phases, and work on the game itself has begun, I’m ready to assemble the rest of the team.

On a general adventure game design note, I think describing open positions will be helpful in demonstrating my particular approach to dividing the labor among team members. It’s also a shameless way for me to get the word out there as well. Note that each position will work with the lead designer—me—whose responsibility will be to keep everything running on schedule, and to ensure that there’s internal consistency and quality within each area. I’m currently looking to fill the following positions.

Pencil Artist
Similar to pencil work on a comic book or graphic novel, the background pencils in Rise of the Hidden Sun are the visual backbone of the entire game. The pencil artist will work in conjunction with me as the lead designer in determining each screen’s look and feel. He or she will be responsible for creating clean background artwork based on existing concept sketches and design notes, and must be able to emulate the project’s previously established artistic style. Access to a scanner, familiarity with PhotoShop or a similar program, and a minimum commitment of two to four background screens per month are required.

Colorist
If the pencilist provides the game’s skeleton, the colorist gives it flesh and blood. This position is responsible for digitally coloring the finished pencils. Proficiency with Photoshop or a similar program is a must, as is the ability to emulate the project’s previously established artistic style. A commitment of two to four background screens per month is required.

Animator
The animator will create character animations to match previously created character sketches, and will be required to emulate the project’s established artistic style for all animations. There will also be the opportunity to design entirely new characters. This position requires previous experience working with Adventure Game Studio or another game design program. (Either that or you’ve got to be a very quick learner.)

Musician
This position is responsible for composing the game’s main musical theme, as well as sound effects to accompany actions throughout the game. As this game is a comedy-adventure Western, familiarity with similar music themes is a must. This position requires previous experience working with Adventure Game Studio or another game design program.

There’s one thing I ask of everyone who joins the team, which is that each person treats it as a serious commitment. This is the single biggest problem that I’ve noticed in other amateur game design projects—people start with a great deal of excitement, then lose enthusiasm and slowly fade away.

I’m taking a different approach. Just do a little work from week to week, and slowly but surely, the project will come along. Clearly real life can interfere now and then, but as long as I can count on good communication and a good-faith effort, there will never be a problem.

That’s all for this time. Thanks for reading.

Next: Finding the balance—life, work, entertainment, and game design

This blog entry originally appeared at Adventure Gamers.

 

 

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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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