The Nights of the Dead
Written and Directed by Lori Cole
Artwork by JP Selwood
Ghoul Design by Eric Varnes
Music by Ryan Grogan
The Nights of the Dead
On the dark of the moon in Sardonian land
When the cold autumn mist shrouds the sand
and the lights in the towns glow a dull, sullen red
Then the people all huddle with worry and dread
For they know that it heralds the time is at hand
The doom of the Nights of the Dead
When the cold iron gates on the catacomb walls
fling open with shrieks that will echo the halls
They crawl from their crypts with their wounds that have clotted
And leave slimy trails of their flesh that has rotted
With their shrouds torn and tattered and hair lank and knotted
The Ghouls of the Nights of the Dead.
So we festoon our hallways with ribbons so bright
And we set out the candles for light
We gather our goodies and foods we love best
And try not to show that we’re fearful and stressed
As we struggle to welcome our unwelcome guests
The Ghosts of the Nights of the Dead
And thus so it goes every month of November
Our dearly departed we all shall remember
We revel their return with good drink and song
And hope we don’t see in the midst of the throng
Those spiteful and bitter with unavenged wrongs
The Wraiths of the Nights of the Dead
So raise up your glass to a spirit or two
And celebrate life with the ones who all knew
No matter whatever you struggle to do
We all join the Nights of the Dead!
Two years ago, Corey and I started a Kickstarter project to raise money to build a puzzle-role-playing game called Hero-U. It was going to be a simple game compared to the projects we have done in the past. It would have a modest budget and be completed in about a year.
We successfully raised our modest budget. We began to build a game. So we got some of our original plan right.
However, we soon realized even at the start of the Kickstarter that our plan had a few hitches. We were not designing the game you wanted to play.
The phrase ‘The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley’ comes to my mind. So does ‘Leeroy Jenkins.’
The Hero-U RPG Becomes An Adventure Game Too
Before the Kickstarter, we planned out how much game we could make for a limited budget. We decided to go with a limited art style along the lines of “MacGuffin’s Curse.” The art style would be cartoony and the perspective of the game would be top down. The Game Play would involve using props and inventory items to combat monsters. Oh, there was a story mixed into it, but the focus would be on the action and puzzle solving.
MacGuffin’s Curse Screenshot
It was a very practical plan. Sadly, neither of us is practical when it comes to making games. We want every game we make to be the best we can create, and one we would enjoy playing.
As we started attracting backers for our Kickstarter, we could see that most of you really wanted to play an Adventure-Roleplaying game like our Quest for Glory games. Many of you were backing us solely because you enjoyed those games and wanted to see more of them.
I prefer to write games that focus more on the story and character development than on puzzles and combat. I was happy to adapt the design to go along with our fans’ expectations and hopes. It would take a little – or a lot – longer, but the results would justify the time and money spent.
The game was becoming more sophisticated, but we’d keep the art style simple in order to stay in budget. Or so we thought…
State of the Art
There was a problem with using the art style of ‘MacGuffin’s Curse.’ It was funky and cartoony. Our lead Art Designer, Terry Robinson, wanted the game to look more like a traditional Adventure Game. After all, that’s what the fans wanted to see.
We’d stick to 2D art and animation. To keep the costs down, we’d use tile-based backgrounds like MacGuffin’s Curse, but instead of top-down, we’d go with a modified isometric view that put the camera at a closer, more intimate view of the action.
Hero-U Dungeon Tiles
It wouldn’t exactly be up to Sierra On-Line’s heyday of beautiful art, but it didn’t have the budget and resources of a Sierra On-Line game. We’d make do with what we had.
That was the plan, anyway.
Our first task was to create a playable demo that showed off the gameplay and style of the game. We intended to release the demo in June of 2013.
However, there were a few glitches.
For one thing, we didn’t have a good way to animate our characters. We didn’t have an animator. To get around this, we found an animation tool that allowed us to animate the characters like puppets. They looked a little jerky. It was really hard to get them to look right when moving on a diagonal. Plus you have perspective problems with looking down on the character.
On the programming side, it was becoming clear that the tile system for backgrounds just wouldn’t work. We decided to create a simple 3D background with 2D props and characters.
July came and went without a demo. Three more months passed as we continued to solve problems and refine the demo.
Finally, in Fall of 2013, we released our demo.
Hero-U Initial Demo Screenshot
It had great music. It had an interesting opening cinematic. It had humor and puzzle-solving. It clearly demonstrated that we were making a Sierra-style Adventure Game.
Okay, so the main character looked crude. The room looked artificial. The animation was extremely limited. The interface was non-intuitive. But at least we accomplished our goal of getting the demo out.
It was also clear that we had a long way to go.
Messed Laid Plans
The puppet animation wasn’t working out, but that was the best our team could create with their limited resources. Fortunately we found an outside company, CAH, who could model and animate our characters for us. It would more than double our art budget, but it would get us the character animation we needed.
We had committed to making a great game. Even though we said from the beginning of the project that we wanted to stay 2D, it was clear that 3D was the only way to created good looking characters who animated smoothly.
So now, we went from using top-down cartoony characters to 2D puppets and then on to 3D animated characters.
Evolution of Shawn
In terms of design, we went from a Puzzle/Role-Playing Game to a Role-Playing/Adventure Game. It will have more traditional RPG elements than Quest for Glory. You will be able to equip items that affect your combat and skills. You’ll be able to maneuver in combat. You’ll be able to manipulate the environment like moving barrels or putting down traps in combat.
But where the design really changes is that it is now a complex and multi-layered Adventure Game. You can make friends or enemies with other people. You uncover a mystery about the main character’s past. The things you do in the game directly affect the main character’s future. Choices really matter in this game.
Oh, and we tripled the amount of writing needed for the game in the process.
Many Moons ago, we made our first 3D game and the last game of the Quest for Glory series, Dragon Fire, with Sierra On-Line. It took over three years, three different game engines, over 50 people, and almost five million dollars to create. It is not easy to make games.
QfG Dragon Fire Screenshot
The difference between Dragon Fire and Hero-U is that it is Corey and I get to decide what works and what doesn’t. We want Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption to be the best game we’ve ever made.
So here we are, a year behind schedule and no release date in sight. We’re over budget, underpaid, overworked, and understaffed. All we have to show for our efforts is a year-old demo that is not worthy of the game. Hero-U is so much more than that.
And yet, I couldn’t be happier. I know that Hero-U will be the most exciting, beautiful, and creative work we’ve ever done. Every member of the team is working because of a love for what they do. That love will make the game even better.
Creating Hero-U has been an Adventure. It’s been scary and frustrating at times. It’s been beautiful and magical at times. I’m very proud of what we have accomplished along the way. We’ve adapted and evolved the game play and art style to create the game that you will love.
That’s the bottom line. We’re making Hero-U the game that you deserve for all the faith and trust you placed on us by supporting this project. Thank you for your support. We won’t let you down.
Although 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?
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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:
Initial Sketches by Eric Varnes
When JP painted the Wine Cellar, he made the Drats look sleeker and much more dangerous.
Painting Detail by John Paul Selwood
Then, Terry Robinson took the Drat monster to the next level of design in this detailed sketch:
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
Here’s a screenshot of the puppet Drats strolling across a room:
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
They sent us back this:
Dire Rat Polygons
And then this:
Dire Rat Textured
Now our Drats look like this:
Dire Rat 3D
Now this is what I call a scary Drat.
It’s even scarier when you squash and skin them:
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.