Happy Halloween

Welcome to Hero-U, a unique Role-playing Adventure Game series.

Hero-U features a strong story and interesting characters, mystery, excitement, danger, and intrigue.

And, of course, Kwirks.

Aug 21 2014

Why Shawn isn’t Shawna

Shawna O'ConnerAlthough almost half as many women play games as men, there are still very few games that have an exclusively female protagonist. When King’s Quest 4 came out twenty-six years ago, there were protest letters sent to Sierra about the fact that the game centered around Rosella, but the game was still a bestseller for the company.

So after all this time – why aren’t there more games starring a woman?

There is not just one reason. It comes down to many factors depending upon the type of game and the vision of the designer and the marketing department of the publisher and who makes the final decision of what goes into a game.

However, in an Indie game, the choice of the protagonist’s gender is ultimately the designer’s decision.

So why is Shawn our main character rather than Shawna?

Equal Rites

I have been a feminist all of my life. That does not mean I’m a man-hating, bra-burning, ball-busting bitch, all evidence to the contrary. All that means is that I want women to have the same chances in life as men. If I do the same job as a guy, then I should be paid the same amount as a guy. If a woman is really good at being a manager, then that woman should be a boss. I just want things to be fair.

So given my feminist proclivities, it seems reasonable that I would design a game around a female protagonist. After all, I’m creating role-playing games. That means that the player takes on the role of the main character. Women play as men all the time in games. Why shouldn’t men play as women? If they can be Rosella, then they can be anyone.

In fact, when we first started designing an interactive storytelling game based around the ‘School for Heroes’ eight years ago, we had a female protagonist. She was a young women newly enrolled in the Wizard class. So in 2012, when we first decided to do a Kickstarter for Hero-U, we were going to turn her story into an Adventure/Role-playing game.

However, as Indie Developers, we had limitations on what we could do. The game was going to be much simpler than a Quest for Glory. It was probably more of a puzzle-role-playing game like McGuffin’s Curse than an adventure game. We had a limited budget and limited art resources. We certainly didn’t have any money for a marketing budget.

So did we really want to try to sell a game about a Wizard at a boarding school as an original idea? Didn’t someone else tell that story before us?

Brooms as Unlicensed Vehicles


Game Plan

We wanted Hero-U to feel fresh and unique. Yes, we want to tell the story about the Wizard, but we decided to hold that one off for a later game in the series (after all, game design is like eating potato chips, nobody designs just one).

So we decided to tell the story of the Rogue instead of the Wizard. Rogues are much more puzzle-oriented than Wizards. We already had the setting for the game and many of the school staff characters developed for the School for Heroes. It couldn’t be too hard to come up with a puzzle game designed around a Rogue, could it?

Pity we didn’t actually get to design that game. It would have been a lot simpler to design and cheaper to create than the one we are working on now.

When we did our Kickstarter, though, we listened to our supporters. They were willing to support Hero-U as a Puzzle Role-Playing game because they enjoyed playing our games in the past, but they really wanted to see another Quest for Glory-style game. Almost all of our Kickstarter backers were fans of our older games.

We didn’t want to disappoint our fans. That’s a little like playing basketball with a Kwirk – with the Kwirk as the basketball.

Now we were back to making an adventure/role-playing game with too little money for too short a time.

So there is a practical reason why we didn’t allow players the choice of what gender they wanted Shawn to be – we didn’t have the art resources to make two main characters. Particularly not when the characters were 2D and had to be custom animated.

However, since we were definitely going over budget by over designing the game, why would we let little things like money, time, resources, and nervous breakdowns stop us from making Shawna? After all, we could always just have a female rogue for a protagonist.

Shawna vs. Terk


Decisions, Decisions

Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption is all about how the choices the player makes for Shawn affects his life and the lives of those around him. It’s an intense role-playing experience. Every choice the player makes has to have consequences.

This is why we couldn’t let the player choose to play either Shawn or Shawna. The interactions and dynamics of the game would be different for a male protagonist than for a female protagonist. Otherwise, the choice of gender was a meaningless decision.

Even in a world where women can become Kings or Wizards, they aren’t treated the same as men. There are more lands than just Raseir where women are seen as possessions rather than individuals. There are men who think that men are superior by nature. There are men who think that women need protecting. Yes, even the world of Gloriana needs feminists.

This game revolves around interacting with other characters throughout the course of the game. Shawna’s interactions with boyfriends and girlfriends would be very different than Shawn’s. There are a minimum of fifty interactions between Shawn and his roommate, Aeolus.

There’s a reason why this game is taking so long to develop. We have to come up with dialogue to match every situation. We have to think of the ramifications of every decision the player makes for Shawn.

Then we have to pull all the different plot threads and character interactions and events and tie them up with a nice little bow on top to make a game.

So why is Shawn not Shawna? Ultimately, it’s because Shawn fits better with the plotline of the game. The story called for a smart-alecky, streetwise kid who wanted to make a better life for himself by becoming a Thief.

If it had been Shawna as that kid on the street, she wouldn’t settle for being a Thief. She would want to become the queen of Sardonia.

Shawna's Dorm

Jul 08 2014

A Matter of Life and Death

The Role of Death in Games

It used to be very easy to die in an Adventure Game. One wrong move and it’s game over, restore or restart. Use an oil can on a suit of armor and an axe came down and lopped off your head. Try to walk out of a convenience store with a Grotesque Gulp without paying for it and you get shot full of holes. Try to cross a huge desert and die of thirst. Restore and try again. And Again.

Ron Gilbert (of Monkey Island fame – and much more) was the first person I know of to question the role of death in games. After all, when you are playing a game, you are immersed in the game’s world and the game experience. You are having fun. Then suddenly, Game Over.

A Slap in the Face

Dealing with Death

Death removes you from the situation. It breaks the illusion that you are part of the game. It’s just not FUN to die.

(Unless, of course, you are playing Leisure Suit Larry. Then, the game is all about finding different ways Larry can die. After all, the poor schmuck clearly deserves what he gets.)

Most of the deaths in the Golden Age of Adventure Games were not made because the designers were all a bunch of sadistic misanthropes who wanted the players to suffer. No, most deaths were there for the very practical reason that due to budget and time constraints, games were very linear in story. You can only afford to create as much game as tells the story. Any deviation from the main plotline met in death because death is the easiest way to put the player back on the track.

Some of these “Dead Ends” are just sloppy game design. Death is a rather drastic way to tell the player that she’s making a mistake when she walks into a dark room without a light.

How fun is that?

We agreed with Ron’s assessment – arbitrary death in computer games sucks for the player.

Quest for Glory Funerals

Then again, we designed death into our games. If you drank the Dragon’s Breath – you burned up. If you walked into a dark alley at night – you met your maker. If you faced a Super Saurus at the beginning of the game with only a dagger, you probably wound up as the Saurus’s supper.

All the deaths in Quest for Glory had one thing in common – they were avoidable. Play smart, act the part, and you stay alive.

Death by Antwerp

Death by Antwerp

But if death in games isn’t fun for the player, why have death in the games? Isn’t the purpose of games to be entertaining to the player?

Games need to be fun. However, fun involves more than just solving puzzles. Otherwise, we’d all be whizzes at crosswords. Some of the pleasure from games comes from the tension caused by the risk of making a mistake and suffering the consequences.

Yes, we actually enjoy stress when we play games.

If there is no consequence in making a mistake, there’s no excitement. Solving the problem is only a matter of trial and error. We get enough of that in real life.

However, in a game, if you guess wrong – bzap! The possibility of death makes you play very carefully. There’s nothing quite as exciting as knowing that one wrong step and you could fall to your doom – as long as you have a clue which step is wrong and which is the right one. When you succeed in a particularly dangerous quest, you get the thrill of success and the satisfaction of accomplishment.

Flunking Out of Hero-U

Wraith of Death

From the beginning of the Hero-U game design, we decided that there would be no death in the game. If the player got the main character, Shawn, into too much serious danger, Shawn was not going to just stand there and let himself get killed. He was going to do the intelligent thing – stop fighting monsters and run away.

After all, Shawn has a mind of his own and he does not want to die.

On the other hand… Who is playing this game – Shawn or the Player?

This is not some television show where you passively watch Shawn explore the university and try to get laid… er… make friends and influence people. What Shawn does is up to you. If you tell Shawn to throw a dagger at a huge gnormous starving Sea Serpent, do you really want Shawn to look you sternly in the eye and give you the finger because he thinks that’s a really bad idea?

Probably not (although maybe you should listen to him sometimes!).

And if Shawn is sneaking around some stranger’s house in the middle of the night and doesn’t dare get caught, is he really going to sit down at the stranger’s piano and play Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’? Not if he can help it.

Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption is all about making choices. That means, we need to let the player have choices, both good and bad ones. But choices are meaningless without consequences.

Death is the ultimate consequence of a bad decision.

Besides, where’s the fun of sneaking around a darkened castle in the middle of the night if you aren’t trying to avoid the notorious Mr. Terk? If he catches Shawn – you know that Shawn will be expelled. Worse, you’ll see Mr. Terk’s smirking face as he lectures Shawn. That’s a fate worse than death, at least in this game.

Dead End

We had a lot of really good ideas for this game when we started out. However, just as our art style has evolved as we work on Hero-U, so too has our design. There will be turned-based combat in this game. It will be more puzzle-solving and outthinking your opponent rather than pressing a key very quickly and hoping that you are faster than the monster is.

But there are times in the game when you have to make a choice – do you risk death to possibly finish off a monster, or do you tell Shawn to run away? Shawn won’t lecture you, but he might subtly suggest that he has a really good pair of running shoes.

What happens when Shawn dies or gets arrested for ‘Breaking and Entering’?

Alas, it’s our old enemy, the Death Screen. You’ll have to restore or restart the game.

Fortunately, the game thoughtfully saved itself when you first entered the dungeon so you won’t discover that you last saved the game, er… never.

You also get to see a very nifty Death Screen painting and a happy rhyming epitaph to take the sting away. Not everyone will get to see that special treat.

But why should you be rewarded only for making a mistake? In Hero-U, you don’t just get a special screen when you lose. You also get a special screen when you win. After all, either way, you made a decision and took a chance.

That’s the fun of it.

Shawn 1, Giant Proach 0

Shawn 1, Giant Proach 0


Jun 22 2014

Anatomy of a Drat

In the previous article, I talked about how the Hero-U art process had changed from flat perspective 2D to full 3D while retaining the lush graphics style of our concept art.

Now I will show how the animation process has evolved as the game progresses.

The Dire Rat

The Dire Rat is like a rat crossed with Tasmanian Devil – bad tempered, fast, and with really sharp teeth. It is not only meaner than your ordinary sewer rat – it eats rats for breakfast.

The local residents of Caligari, Sardonia call them “Drats.”

The first design sketches of the Drats looked like this, and went well with the original cartoony character designs:

Early Drat Design


Initial Sketches by Eric Varnes

When JP painted the Wine Cellar, he made the Drats look sleeker and much more dangerous.

Wine Cellar Drat


Painting Detail by John Paul Selwood

Then, Terry Robinson took the Drat monster to the next level of design in this detailed sketch:

Parts of a Drat


Sketch by Terry Robinson

2D or not 2D

Sierra On-Line had a very sophisticated animation program to create their games. We were starting from scratch. After looking at several different animation tools for Hero-U, we settled on a program that used a “Puppet” approach to animation. The images were broken apart and then the parts could be moved separately like a puppet on a string.

This shows how many pieces it took to make a Drat move with the Puppet system:

Parts of a Drat


Parts of a Drat

Here’s a screenshot of the puppet Drats strolling across a room:

Puppet Drats Walking


Puppet Drats Walking

On the whole, they look too cartoony and not very scary. At the time, it was what we had to work with.

A Change in Plans

When we released our first demo for the game, there were comments that the hero looked stiff and moved poorly. Now you can see why the characters moved so stiffly. It took a lot of work to do this puppet animation in the game, even with the professional animator we had hired. Even with his skill and traditional animation background, the characters still moved like puppets on strings.

Then our lead animator was made an offer he couldn’t refuse – a big game company wanted to pay him a real salary for his work (unlike the peanuts and popcorn and evental fame and fortune that we offered). Alas, he was tired of eating popcorn for breakfast and was lured away from us.

We were left with a hokey-looking animation system and no animator.

The Coming of CAH

Last year about the time our lead animator left the team, Corey and I were asked to talk at a small game conference. One of the exhibitors was Concept Art House, who did character designs for games like “League of Legends.” When we spoke with them, they were very interested in working with us.

However, their artists and animators worked in 3D.

Real vs. Memorex

Frankly, we didn’t like the look of the last game we did in 3D. We didn’t have a team who was used to working with 3D. Most of the art team did not want to work with 3D.

But we liked what we saw from CAH, so we gave them a chance to change our minds about 3D animation. We had them take one of our designs and turn it into a 3D model.

We sent them this:

Dire Rat Model Sheet


Dire Rat Model Sheet

They sent us back this:

Poly Drat


Dire Rat Polygons

And then this:

Dire Rat Textured


Dire Rat Textured

Now our Drats look like this:

Dire Rat 3D


Dire Rat 3D

Now this is what I call a scary Drat.

It’s even scarier when you squash and skin them:

Drat Texture


Dire Rat Unwrapped

This is how the 3D artist creates the textures that will be placed upon the 3D wire frames. This is why 3D artists make the big bucks in the game industry. It takes a good imagination to figure out how to paint three dimensional objects with two dimensional tools.

CAH managed to convince us that they could give us a better-looking and moving Drat than we had with the 2D Puppet engine despite our initial concerns. We asked them to redo all of our character art in 3D, and we are very pleased with the results.

Doing Whatever It Takes

Working with a new team and unfamiliar tools, flexibility is essential. Hero-U started out with cartoony, flat characters in a chessboard-like top-down environment. We then tried the Sierra look with flat characters on an isometric “stage”. Either could have worked, but did not look good enough by 21st Century graphics standards.

Our new look uses 3D environments, both 2D and 3D props, and 3D characters with full animation. Hero-U is not the game we started out to make; it is going to look much better than we dreamed it could.

Equally important to getting a game out, we now have all of the basic character design and animation complete. This has required us to stretch the budget with personal funds, but we are convinced it was the only way to go for this game. Making this decision almost a year into development has also added months to the schedule, but realistically we could not have done any better in 2D with the people and resources we had.

We are now on track to make a game that is new, original, and beautiful. Like we did with Quest for Glory, we are making Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption to be a game we can be proud of 20 years from now.

May 29 2014

What’s Happening

We’re deep into production of Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption. The game’s scope and scale are much larger than we intended when we first started out. We thought we were making a small puzzle/rpg that had its roots in Adventure Games. Now it is becoming a full blown RPG/Adventure Game along the lines of our original Quest for Glory games.

As you may know by now, the Hero-U team is all over the world. It would be very nice to have us all in the same place working at the same time as we had on our previous game project. It is a challenge to manage a project of such an ambitious scale under the best of situations, but our team is creating something beautiful and unique for all of you to play.

It’s time we pulled back the curtain to show some of our progress and process.

The Wine Cellar Painting

Wine Cellar Painting

Wine Cellar Painting

This was one of the first concept paintings that JP Selwood made for this game back just after we completed the Kickstarter. It’s such a beautiful piece, it made it difficult to picture our game as a simple puzzle game. Between the fans and artwork like this, we knew we had to make a game worthy of them all.

This was the inspiration – now it was time to turn the Wine Cellar into an environment for the game.

Game Design Time

First I came up with a list of all the things we wanted to happen in the Wine Cellar. Most of the castle/school is safe for the students – much safer than Hogwarts. But it’s hard to learn to be a hero if you never have to face danger.

Few things are scarier than the unknown.

So the Wine Cellar is a place to explore in the dead of night. There are creatures lurking in the corners. There is danger here. There is a mystery to solve.

And at one time, it was where the knightly order who lived in the castle made wine. Alas, even knightly orders have to make a living somehow.

So I had to research the ins and outs of winemaking in order to set up this location.

Then I created a floor plan for the Wine Cellar, wrote up a detailed room description in Google Docs so that it could be shared with the team, and passed it onward to JP.

Wine Cellar Layout

Wine Cellar Layout

Bringing the Wine Cellar to Light

Now it was time for JP to work his magic again.

He started with a detailed pencil sketch.

Wine Cellar Pencil Sketch

Wine Cellar Pencil Sketch

Then he did this lovely color comp.

Wine Cellar Color Comp

Wine Cellar Color Comp

Here’s a detail of the glass blowing room (where the bottles were made) and the main corridor of the cellar.

Wine Cellar Detail

Wine Cellar Color Comp Detail

Building the Cellar

Now that we had a detailed vision of the Wine Cellar, it was time to give Chris Willis his turn at taking a painting and creating the room in 3D. It had to retain the unique qualities of JP’s painting. We are creating the game with both 2D and 3D artwork, and they need to meld seamlessly.

Chris first created the separate elements that made up the Wine Cellar right down to the individual bottles. Here’s a screen shot of some of the elements in Maya.

Wine Cellar 3D Details

Wine Cellar 3D Pieces

The main way we work together with the team is by holding weekly meetings – one with the artists and another one with the programmers. Here is a screenshot from one of our Google Hangouts showing part of the 3D rendered art.

Wine Cellar 3D Construction

Wine Cellar 3D

And finally, here is a close up of the 3D Wine Cellar to match JP’s color comp.

3D Details

Wine Cellar Color 3D Detail

After all that work, the room is only about half finished. The programmers need to put in the events, the combat, the game play, and finally the music. Meanwhile, we will continue to polish the game design and fill out the text, dialogue, and events that take place in the Wine Cellar.

And this is just one section of the game. We are making steady progress on all of them, but as you can see, nothing in game development comes easily.

Apr 02 2014

Top Ten Reasons that Hero-U has been Delayed

10. Our dog ate the computer.

9. The Hero-ewe turned out to be a ram and boy, do we look sheepish.

8. The artists ran out of blue pixels.

7. We received a court order to change the Hero-U name because it was deemed to be too confusingly similar to the Wii-U.
Therefore from this point onward, Hiiro-U will only be available on Nintendo gaming machines.

6. The Kwirks demanded green M&Ms in every room.

5. The entire team got sick after eating spinach dip at the company party.

4. Dr. von Braun blew up the science lab tower… again.

3. The company treasurer absconded with the funds and ran off to Daventry – It’s a magical place.

2. One of the programmers caught a code.

And the Number One reason that Hero-U has been delayed:

Someone forgot to tell the designers that this was supposed to be a small Indie game.

Protect Yourself

Pand Guards

Now at the Hero-U Collectibles Store – Pand Guards!

Pand Guards – The Patent-Pending way to protect your hands from fearsome fire and pesky pandas.

“You can de-pand on Pand Guards”