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Archive for the ‘Character Design’ Category

Nothing Escapes the Watchful Gaze of Hawkeye

The Old Prospector Picks His Nose When No One's Looking

If you hadn’t already guessed from the two images above, we’re making great progress on the animation front. These two characters are the work of Ron Jensen, our newest animator. Whattaya think?

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Junior?

As I alluded to in my last postRise of the Hidden Sun is a sort of love song to a bygone era of adventure games. Whenever I can work an homage for an old classic into this game, I usually do. And as you can see from the character design above, that sometimes manifests itself in significant ways.

We modeled our main character on this sprite from Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Why mess with perfection?

Personally, I think it’s a great look for ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake Dawson. Indy probably disagrees. I hear he gets a little uncomfortable around rattlesnakes.

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The man, the myth, the legend himself… ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake Dawson!

Character sprite by Wyatt Miles of Flash Potatoes, LLC, based on a concept by Josh Roberts and an initial sketch by David Perry.

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Original Design by David Perry

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Later this month, I’ll be releasing a two-minute cinematic prologue for Rise of the Hidden Sun: A ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake Dawson Adventure. It’s the opening sequence that sets the stage for the game by explaining how Jake comes into possession of the treasure map that leads to the fabled Lost City of Cibola. It doubles as a trailer for the game, too.

To whet your appetite, here are a few images from the movie:

Look for the whole thing on or around July 20.

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Well, this sucks.

After six months of hard work and anticipation, another era in the production of my would-be adventure game opus, Rise of the Hidden Sun, has come to a disappointing end.

First, though, some background. Buckle up ’cause this may take a while.

Rise of the Hidden Sun is a 2-D point ‘n’ click adventure game in the tradition of old computer classics like King’s Quest and The Secret of Monkey Island. I was practically raised on those games in the ’80s and ’90s and I’ve wanted to make one of my own for as long as I can 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, 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 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.

This game wasn’t going to look like a one-person job. No, no. This was going to have professional production values from the writing and music to the background art and animation. And for a while, everything went according to plan. I was able to recruit some top-notch talent from the amateur adventure game design community. I served as the project coordinator and de facto art director, making sure that everything met a very high standard of production and had a consistent “feel” to it from artist to artist.

My biggest problem since this all began, though, has been attrition. Simply put, people who volunteer their time on projects like this—particularly people who you only know through the Internet—just don’t stick around to finish what they’ve started. They’re usually good for about three months of work before they just drop off the face of the planet, never to be heard from again.

So, about two years ago I made the decision to start paying people to work on my game. I couldn’t pay much, of course—I had always planned on Rise of the Hidden Sun being a freeware game—and it basically came down to how quickly I could sell stuff on eBay to pay for the work-for-hire artists I needed to create the professional quality artwork I wanted. This was a bad business model, obviously, but that’s why I named my production unit “Chapter 11 Studios.” I knew I’d go broke doing it this way, but I was determined to make Rise of the Hidden Sun the best damn freeware adventure game ever made.

I’ve had pretty good luck with background artists who draw and/or digitally color the game environments. My track record with animators isn’t so good. But I thought I’d finally solved the problem for good back in June of this year when I began working with a professionally trained animator named Jim Peebles.

Not only was Jim willing to work for very short money—again, I could afford him just by selling my old comic books on eBay—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 two years. 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 Jim, like each and every one of my would-be animators before him, eventually stopped producing. Progress updates became less and less frequent. The quality of the animations dropped significantly when he did get around to sending me something.

And then this past weekend came the final straw. He emailed me probably the two worst character animations I’ve ever seen. Sloppy, careless, and clearly very rushed. They looked nothing like the amazing work he’d done for me just months earlier. It left me with no choice: Jim’s time on Rise of the Hidden Sun was over.

Thus, I have no animator, and I don’t even know if I can use the good stuff Jim created because every animator has a different style and it’s hard to combine the work of different artists without the discrepency between their styles being obvious.

It’s left me to once again question my plan to make Rise of the Hidden Sun a freeware game. If I really want it to be professional quality, it seems, I’m going to have to take a professional approach—and that means a for-profit model that would make this 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/animator, which would ensure that it would get done—but at a significantly reduced level of quality.

So here I am, back at the drawing board again … literally. I’m standing at a crossroads in the game’s development, and I have no idea which road to take.

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Sprite by Jim Peebles

We’ve been hard at work on getting the character designs finalized for the first episode. One of the major players throughout the whole game is Mary Jane Clayton, a rival treasure hunter and potential love interest for our here, ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake Dawson. She plays a small role in the story near the end of episode one. Here she is in all her animated glory. Artist Jim Peebles of Peebles Productions did the work on this sprite.

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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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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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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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