Developer's Blog

Novels to Video Games: Taking the Leap

Posted on April 15, 2015 by Moira

Pick up a book on writing novels, and a significant number of chapters will be devoted to writing the character arc and pairing it with your world. Protagonist and world (or plot) will in a sense be foils, both uniquely suited to the other and diametrically opposed. The world and the protagonist play off of one another, leading the protagonist to struggle, fail, learn, and ultimately conquer. However clinical it may sound, I can assure you that as one gets down into the guts of the story, working out this interplay can be exquisitely frustrating,

Still, when Keaton White approached me about writing the story for Shroud, I felt confident. I had written characters from bored noblewomen to scientific researchers to trainee assassins—and I love video games. I began building a story with, in retrospect, a comical level of naiveté.

One of the first unexpected emotions to hit was guilt. Fantasy author Neil Gaiman once described visiting the set of the movie Stardust, and seeing the set crew building a flying pirate ship:

"I felt so guilty. I wasn’t saying how great it was; I was going, “I am so sorry I made it up!” Because it didn’t cost me anything, just the price of whatever tea I was drinking and some ink. And now 70 people have spent two months working to build this thing and you can dance on the deck. It was very, very strange."

I first read this quote years and years go, and thought it was amusing, but it really was very strange to dream up cities and settings, and watch artists spend hours upon hours creating sketches, coming humbly back to me to ask if this was what I had envisioned for the characters and the world. No matter how much they enjoyed their work or how much time they expected to spend working on a world, the experience was a wakeup call: I was no longer chewing on the end of a pen, sitting alone at my desk and dreaming up things I could change at a moment’s notice. Other people’s livelihoods hinged on me not only getting this right and creating an engaging world, but being respectful of their time meant that I must do so quickly and surely, with a minimum of rework. I went back to dreaming, but more seriously.

As I started to write the character, issues became plain: not only did I need to make a character arc largely without internal dialogue, but I needed to show the character in juxtaposition to the world without a great deal of external dialogue, either. This was an idea I had simply never faced before. The world would be shown as it was, not as my character perceived it, and my character’s main actions would need to be comprehensible, while allowing for the characters to feel they had an influence on the story. Oh, crap, would be a good assessment—if not quite a verbatim transcript—of my internal dialogue at this juncture.

And this was before we added in the game mechanics, cut scene limitations, and the opinions of the other game designers. Necessary changes began to accrue, shifting the storyline subtly in an increasing number of ways. I gave up and went to play Dragon Age, which only served to unnerve me even more. Dialogue wheels! Extensive character lists! Multiple writers!

It took a few weeks to click, but when it did we went full steam ahead…in the other direction. In retrospect, maybe this approach should have been obvious from the start: with one writer, there was no way we could recreate the vastness of a AAA game like Mass Effect, using dialogue options and motion-capture. Although it was obvious, as well, that we should not have thought of that as a failure: after all, Thatgamecompany had shown with Journey that it was entirely possible to create an outstanding game and a rich story by working within limitations instead of pushing for things that were not possible.

We considered what we had, and what we could do. Limited dialogue? Well, how about almost none at all? After all, video games are fundamentally directed by actions. Characters could mostly silent and still reflect the feelings of the player, if they were allowed outlets to choose their antagonists in quests, switch alliances, and suggest new ones. Our protagonist, being an outsider to the complex and vicious politics of Iskendrun, would naturally take time to become vocal, with much of their character shown in their choice of allies.

Just like structuring character development along the lines of action was an obvious choice in retrospect, writing these choices is infinitely easier in concept than it is in practice. As a novelist, there is the expectation that as soon as the work is out of one’s hands, readers will bring their own perspective to it. It is a new perspective entirely to plan for the engagement of the players to be ongoing, and to prepare for the possibility that it could shift the story in directions I had not originally planned—because once Season 1 begins, the players themselves will be the voice of Iskendrun’s politics. And that means setting them loose in the world our development team has brought to life…and letting the mechanics I set in advance play out.

Post by Moira Katson, story designer for Shroud

EGX Rezzed: From AAA Publisher to Indie Exhibitor

Posted on March 19, 2015 by Shibusuke

This past weekend, I attended one of my first major conferences as an indie developer. I went up to EGX Rezzed in London with the Brighton Game Collective and next-door neighbor independent dev KnifeySpoonie to help them exhibit their match-3 fighting game (not only am I serious about that, it’s awesome), Pro Puzzle Wrestling.

Not only was it a fantastic experience, almost all of it was a new territory. Over the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to attend a number of events, including GDC and BitSummit in Japan—but I have always done so as part of a AAA publisher. Experiencing an event as a small exhibitor was a nice change of pace and provided some interesting insights, written up below.

Getting ready for the big event
 

In AAA, People Are Excited to See You(r Company)

There’s no shortage of people to meet if you attend a conference as part of a AAA developer/publisher. In this sense, a number of things are taken care of for you. The name of the company means people will seek you out and make time for you.

For weeks beforehand, my LinkedIn inbox would start to overflow with meeting requests and inquiries. At the conference, exhibitors would be excited if we came over to check out their stuff. Our cups ranneth over with free coffee and beer—which, during a weeklong conference, might actually constitute a health hazard.

 

(Occasional) Hollow Courtesy:

There are a number of advantages that come with having a AAA logo on your business card: people respond (more) promptly to emails, rearrange their schedules for meetings, and focus more intently on what you have to say. It grants access to the latest-and-greatest unreleased sizzle reels, and the supply of branded notepads and pens is limitless. Sure, it might not be as friendly and down-to-earth as indie, but I had people’s attention.

And yet, I work in this industry because I love it, and I remember how frustrating it was to be nothing more than a dropbox for a sales pitch. There are so many interesting projects to see, people to meet, and discussions to have, that being the face of the company and not a person could be frustrating. While I understand it and still enjoyed the work, I don’t find it as emotionally satisfying.

Switching gears to Rezzed, it was a breath of fresh air - an immensely challenging, physically exhausting marathon of a breath, but refreshing nonetheless.

 

Knife at a Gun Show: it can work.

In the past, I would jump between meetings and seek out projects to report back on, but at Rezzed, we could barely get away from our booth - we spoke until our voices were raw, we only got off our feet for lunch (pro tip: Converse are not a great exhibitor shoe), and we had to improvise our entire floor strategy on the fly. It was exhilarating and tiring, but we kept a stream of people lined up for the game, and the player response was phenomenal.

The AI is about to get thrashed

Pulling this off was extremely rewarding. Positioned in a row with several other developers from Brighton (Tammeka Games’ Radial-G and Sock Thuggery’s Mighty Tactical Shooter), we were competing for attention in a room full of incredibly talented people and entertaining titles, and that entire room was competing with the likes of Guild Wars 2, ID@Xbox, Devolver Digital, and several other areas featuring darlings of the indie world. We were on our own, acting as the marketing team, the PR team, and the promotional materials all rolled into a tiny cluster of people with one PC and a banner. We did the best with could with the resources we had: bodies, buttons, and a mountain of flyers.

 

You Are (Not) Alone

One of the best things we did was meet other developers and work together to promote each others’ titles, a thing that would never fly with the big developers. We put together “indie game flyer packs” and handed them out to anyone who walked near any of our booths. We ran spiels about every game in the pack and pointed out where to go, and the uptake from players was fantastic: we were providing a convenient filter for an abundance of choice.

While these strategies may not be new to veteran small developers, it was a complete 180 from the experience of being with a publisher. We all found time to play each others’ games, and ideas flowed along with the pints after the show to comfort our feet.

It was the sense of camaraderie and direct responsibility that most differentiated the independent developer experience from the AAA experience. We were all in it together, supporting each other and working to make sure everyone got noticed, rather than jumping around trying to find business opportunities. Instead of business and networking over drinks a swanky bar, we banded together with new friends to recount the day and plan for the next (still a form of networking!).

Marketing and PR, all rolled into one

I enjoyed my time in AAA and met some incredible people. However, I also appreciate the emotional reward and heaps of experience from running a tiny booth with friends and collaboratively taking on the challenge of standing out in a crowd. The results felt more real and the successes more earned.

Which is Right for You?

I wouldn’t trade my experiences in AAA, from awesome games to awesome coworkers, for anything. For all that, having done both AAA and small development now, I know I will be sticking with friends, sore feet, and a cracking voice in order to get direct contact with players and to have responsibility for our failures and successes.

On the other hand, I’ll definitely take a free drink, if you’re offering.

[Want to buy me a drink? Tell me @Shibusuke]

Thoughts on Unity 5, Unreal 4, and Source 2

Posted on March 05, 2015 by Shibusuke

 

The announcements from the major game engine makers this week have been exciting to say the least. The new offers from Unity and Unreal, as well as the promise of Source 2, make it cheaper and easier than ever to dive straight into the world’s most prominent engines, but what does that mean for smaller developers?

From a business perspective, I don’t feel like much has changed - yet.

Abyssal Arts is currently using Unity 5 on both of our main projects, and there are no apparent benefits to switching with how far along we are. Unity 5 is great; it offers ease of use, support for a fantastic number of platforms, and we are used to it.

As a startup company with less than $100k in revenue (for now!), the biggest change for us is the introduction of the free “Personal Edition” with all of the Pro features enabled. With this, we can start testing on devices that would have previously required multiple Pro licenses for the features we are using and saves us several thousand dollars up-front. For us, and for the other small developers I’ve talked to, this is hugely beneficial.

For Unreal, I wonder how much of a change this really constitutes. Dropping the cost of the subscription will certainly increase their user base, but the 5% royalty stops me from being terribly enthusiastic. The percentage gave me pause even while the $19/seat fee was still in place. The royalty is perfectly justifiable - it’s a fantastic engine and the quality, efficiency, and visual power it provides will certainly be of immense value to any team that uses it, to which I can attest, working with a couple of teams that used it.

Unreal Engine Logo

However, if an example studio of several people were going to build a game with stylized (but not fancy) graphics and hoped to earn $500,000 in revenue, the back-of-the-envelope math for the royalty may work out to something like:

$500,000 x 0.05 = $25,000

And that’s before the platform takes its cut; another third off takes the total down to $310,000 or so. If the $25,000 could have been used to pay someone’s salary, the engine costs may not be worth it.

The long-tail costs of Unreal could also potentially sting; if the game becomes a hit and suddenly does $5 million in revenue, that’s $250,000 instead of $25,000, whereas Unity would be a flat license fee. Chances are a small developer won’t be able to negotiate a non-royalty deal with Epic like a large publisher could, either. Even at $100,000 in revenue, the threshold at which Unity requires a license, unless the developer needs 4 Pro licenses, Unity is still more affordable than Unreal.

The opportunity cost of choosing Unreal 4 over Unity 5 in this case may not make sense in most cases for this fictional developer. There are also the two competing asset stores to consider as well (which will certainly evolve now that Unreal is free to download). If the developer could achieve the same revenue with Unity 5, holding development costs equal, Unity 5 comes out on top from a cost perspective.

But what about Source 2? It will apparently be completely free - no license, no royalty. I’m very excited about a free engine that focuses on enabling creators to build content for the games they love. Will Valve be taking a cut like in a similar fashion to an asset store/Team Fortress 2 items? Will it work exclusively with Steam, driving revenue growth for Valve by having more content for sale? With no other solid details to go on, anything at this point is speculation.

Source 2 Logo

The one concern I have regarding Source 2, as eager as I am to see it, is Valve Time. A small developer, generally, cannot survive on Valve Time. Critical updates, new features, bug fixes - I believe that Valve knows what they’re doing and will do their best to service the engine, but at this point, it would be silly to commit any upcoming projects to using Source 2 because we have no idea when it’s coming out. If we knew it was similar enough to Source where one could start development there and port it, maybe it would be possible, but again: Valve Time.

With the likes of Unity and Unreal available now, only those who have access to Source 2 prior to its launch will know what it can do and what it will be like to use. Developers will early access will also be the only ones with experience working with Valve’s engineers until it becomes generally available (in my limited experience, their engineers really solid). I wish we were one of the lucky ones because I am extremely excited about the potential of user generated content, but until it is released, it’s nothing more than a nice idea.

It is a nice one, though: imagine an engine integrated into Steam that handles version control for you and your team - no more GIT troubles, no more wrangling .meta files, just everything integrated into a wonderful, easy-to-use, steel-grey interface. One can dream.

The Right People

Posted on February 24, 2015 by Shibusuke

It seems impossible that it’s already mid-February. Time flies when you’re madly developing, huh?

One quick update: over the last few months, we’ve made some incredible progress on Zombie Playground. I don’t want to spoil anything here, but anyone who has been following the game’s development and is looking forward to its release should definitely keep an eye out for our next Kickstarter update.

Our progress on Zombie Playground (and on Shroud as well) comes in large part from a piece of advice that comes up frequently on Gamasutra, and which I first really understood when it was told to me by a colleague who had started his own business and raised it into a successful company. What was it? Put in the effort up front to wade through whatever tax regulations and contracts, and hire the right people with the right talent, wherever they are in the world.

Like many others, I thought that hiring the right people was a given but had never had to deal with what goes into that process - and I’m still learning. When faced with a mire of international tax law, contracts, and payment transfers, it is tempting to write off hiring or collaborating internationally, especially when the time required to seek out and find the right person is already immense: it can feel overwhelming when trying to think on the scale of the entire planet.

However, the value of a solid team and strong relationships far outweighs the inconvenience of having to read through page after page of income tax conventions (excuse me while I fall asleep at the memory), and a quick Google search will provide numerous resources on why finding the right people are so important.

Still, I’ve encountered reluctance to look beyond borders or (perceived) language/cultural barriers. The concerns are valid: what if we can’t communicate what we want, or they don’t understand? Won’t the contract be complicated? What if it doesn’t work out and we can’t do anything about it because they’re in another country? Those are all terrifying, especially as a young business.

Just getting Abyssal Arts off the ground required an enormous amount of research (and bothering knowledgeable colleagues) about international tax agreements, employee contracts, employer obligations, and so on. I had a background in contracts and negotiations, so this part was probably a bit easier for me than others who may not have worked in this area before (the wave of seriousness that washed over my art friends whenever the word “contract” was uttered was always priceless).

Trust is the other key factor. In my experience, if the other party doesn’t seem trustworthy or reliable, it is probably best not to pursue the relationship. If they are honest and dependable, rather than linguistic, cultural, or legal hurdles, any problem-solving that does occur is more likely to be for the sake of the game than anything else.

With all that said, it can be done. While it does not make for exciting reading, actively planning ahead to figure out the necessary setup (especially for international collaboration) and then seeking professional advice saved Abyssal Arts a lot of time and service fees. Thanks to careful preparation and research, there were only minor headaches involved in the process, and waiting for us on the other side of the bureaucratic tunnel was full-fledged independent development!

And then there’s the biggest reward: our team. One of the reasons we’ve been able to make the strides that we have over the last few months is that we established a solid team of talented, self-motivated people, right from the outset, despite being dispersed across 3 different regions (it also helped to have a great project to work on.)

In our case, the upfront investment of time was more than worth the long-term benefits of building our little team. The flexibility and determination that is driving our development process applies equally to all other aspects of what we’re doing, and has enabled us to avoid compromising on the most important part of any project - the people.

The takeaway is to learn what you need now, so that when you find that perfect team member, the one who is as inspired by your project as you are, wherever they are and whoever they are, you are prepared to bring them on board right away. Don’t let concerns about paperwork and regulations stop you from working together - it may be frustrating or confusing, but it can be overcome, and the end result is definitely worth it!

Abyssal Arts is currently a co-developer on Zombie Playground as well as developer of Shroud, where we are preparing to practice what we preach in the search for art staff.

Communication

Posted on December 14, 2014 by Shibusuke

[This started as a post about dispersed teams, but the content was too much for one post! This is the first, which discusses the importance of communication.]

When we started Abyssal Arts, we knew from the start that we were going to be working across time zones, countries, and language barriers. We’re hardly unique in this respect—from AAA teams to little indie outfits like us, nearly every developer has to confront this reality at some point. Still, I have seen firsthand that this can make or break a project, and that leads me to the point of this post:

Communication. It’s a thing, and it's important.

Link to source: http://www.vgcats.com/comics/?strip_id=42

Powerful stuff, right? I do mean that literally, though, so I hope you bear with me. Not to sound too touchy feely, but communication is powerful. I have worked on AAA projects that suffered (a lot) because the teams involved did not communicate with one another positively or effectively. Unsurprisingly, without communication, or with poor communication, a team can devolve from extraordinary into angry, suspicious, and missing deadlines. On the flip side, I’ve been involved with projects that had insane deadlines and ridiculous levels of complexity succeeded because the team, even with major cultural and linguistic hurdles to overcome, established strong, positive working relationships because they really wanted to communicate.

Very well, you say. Communication is important, we get it. Why is it a “thing,” though? We communicate all time, from emails to video conferences, and yet it is surprisingly easy to forget that clear communication should be a priority and requires dedication as well as focus. The communication is not incidental. The communication is a matter unto itself, and must be treated that way. So, without further ado, here are a few suggestions for implementing effective communication:

  1. Ideally, someone will take charge of communication. In a perfect world, this is centralized in one or two individuals who can focus on the task without detracting from other work or where communication is complimentary to their work (producers, project managers, etc.), but communication can be undertaken by anyone, really, from Producer to Coffee Fetcher (these happen to be the same in our office, and dear self, please remember to get dark roast next time). The important thing is that your communications person keeps channels open between all parties, knows how, when, and on what platforms communication takes place, shares all relevant information in a timely manner, and projects enthusiasm. Speaking of emotions …
  2. Emotional connections will help a great deal. Face to face time helps establish a connection that email, phone, and even video conference cannot match. However, making sure that your team takes the time to communicate on a personal level (regular video conferences, emails, etc) can help alleviate this. Team members should know about the people they’re working with are like – not just that Jim codes, but that Jim enjoys kayaking and has a dog. But most importantly, if possible, even if it's expensive or difficult, try to bring everyone together in person at least once, as even one meeting can significantly improve the efficacy of communication and the quality of the relationship down the line.
  3. On the flip side, emotions do not always help communication. This is one reason that a central communications hub can be useful. I have been on projects where poor communication, often a result of several separate-but-related factors, soured performance to the point that the collaboration was nixed. Had effective communication existed in that environment, it may have been possible to address the root issues as soon as they appeared and to focus on what needed to be done to continue the collaboration. When the relationship allows for it, though, I've found that reaching out as soon as something is perceived to be amiss can not only address the issue at hand, but also create a deeper mutual understanding and trust between teams and people (Oh, that's why it came in like that). Proactively improving communication is a key skill, and a third party can sort out some of the emotional baggage (or help sort it out).

    Because I wrote the words "emotional baggage". Link to the source: http://fairygodflea.deviantart.com/art/Emotional-Baggage-125993864

     

  4. Know your biz. Where are documents uploaded? Who can edit them? Where is the reference and concept artwork? What tools are we using to communicate, and who’s looped in on which subjects? Ideally, every single person on the project knows whom to contact about issues they have, but this isn't always everyone's focus, and especially in dispersed teams, it's hard to keep track of names, voices, faces, responsibilities, and contact methods. Still, if Matt uploads some artwork, Sue and Kosuke should both know how to comment on it. If Aaron needs information about the dialogue, he should know whom to contact, and how to contact them.

Ideally, we would all be perfect communicators, with flawless retention, and perfect working relationships, but alas, this is not an ideal world and we can’t have everything (I want to be able to snowboard to work, but my floor is flat and it doesn't snow indoors). But what we can do is proactively promote effective communication among team members, with central people able to sort out any misconceptions, misunderstandings, or misdirected questions as soon as they arise. Prioritizing communication as a focus of its own makes a surprising number of issues disappear entirely.

[Looking at the images in the post, I think subconsciously I'm trying to tell you how difficult this can really be... Keep at it!]

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