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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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One of the major tasks I’ve set for myself prior to the release of episode one is bringing artistic consistency from screen to screen and within environments as a whole.

Thus, a lot of game environments that were initially conceived and painted as standalone 800×600 screens are being converted into more organic scrolling areas that give the whole game a more modern feel.

Another issue I’m addressing is consistency of painting styles between the different artists who contributed to episode one during our first production cycle. For example, in some screens the underlying pencil work is really obvious, i.e. the colorist allowed all of the pencil shading to show through. In other screens, the colorist painted over the pencil strokes and you can barely tell it was originally conceived as a paper-and-pencil drawing.

This is what the old version of a scene (two unique screens at 800×600 each) looked like:

And here’s that scene reimagined to a) take advantage of the Adventure Game Studio’s scrolling functions, and b) re-painted to establish consistent color treatment throughout:

This also gives me the chance to make some tiny corrections and additions that I’ve wanted to do for a while. For example, when I designed this crossroads screen I hadn’t yet come up with a design for the town off in the distance. Thus, the town appears very generic in the original screen, whereas in the new screen it actually matches the look and layout of the town, which you’ll get to explore in episode two. Vulture Rock off in the distance has also moved to fit better into the geography of the game world.

Although these changes may push back the release of episode one, I think it will be well worth the wait.

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As the saying goes, reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated. After nearly two years on hiatus, Rise of the Hidden Sun is back!

Why the long break? Here’s what I told the team when I made the decision to halt production in November 2005:

The reasons for this are a billion-fold, but the biggest factor is really simple: I just don’t have the time to oversee production of the game with the passion and energy I’ve put into it for the past two years.

My life has changed since I launched Chapter 11 Studios. For one thing, I’ve finally established myself as an adventure travel columnist for a major U.S. publication. Writing about travel takes research, passion, energy, and—obviously—a lot of time away from home.

My wife and I will also soon be buying a house and trying to start a family in the year ahead. Couple that with various other demands on my time, and it has literally become impossible for me to put the energy into this game that I feel is required to do the job right.

I know each of you committed to this game because of your belief that it would someday be finished. I stand by that: It will get done. Maybe not as soon as we’d hoped, but eventually. My passion for this story, these characters, and this game is still strong. It’s the time to work on it that’s coming up short these days.

Flash forward to today. Do I have more free time? Uh, not so much. I’m still a travel writer. I now own a house. My wife and I have a newborn baby to take care of. And yet… I still can’t get Rise of the Hidden Sun out of my system. I just love this game too much to let it go. Who needs to sleep, anyway?

So there you have it. Over the past few months I’ve rounded up some of the old gang, recruited some new blood, and dusted off the original design documents that made this whole thing possible to begin with.

And now, after two long years, ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake Dawson rides again!

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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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