Thursday, November 15, 2012

So 'U' want to be a Hero

Last year I was privileged enough to do a short interview with veteran adventure/RPG game designer Corey Cole. Corey is one half of the husband/wife design duo behind the eternally beloved ‘Quest for Glory’ series, an adventure/RPG gaming thoroughbred, first developed by Sierra Online in the early 90’s and running up to the final chapter, ‘Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire’, in 1998.

Quest for Glory was a potent cocktail of several gaming flavours that make it stick in the hearts of many golden era adventure gamers, and it’s a series that turned Lori and Corey Cole into cult figures amongst the retro gaming scene. One part point and click adventure and one part roleplay stat building, add to the mix a charming sense of humor and a beautifully realized game world that’s just begging to be explored, and you have an idea of why Quest for Glory is so fondly remembered. Play through these classics today and you can feel the genuine love that was poured into each title by the creators.

Lori and Corey have had a sizeable break from video game development since Quest for Glory V in 1998, but they have never forgotten their fans. The duo have always kept themselves open and engaging to the fan base, even running a website ‘The School for Heroes’ which acts as a spiritual successor to the QFG series, and shares the spirit of adventure instilled in the games they brought to life.

Enter early 2012. Tim Shafer and Ron Gilbert, legendary Lucasarts adventure game designers from the same era as Lori and Corey, launch their Kickstarter project for a brand new point and click adventure game. An classic gaming renaissance ensues. ‘Crowdfunding’ is a term that didn’t originate from the website ‘Kickstarter’, but the site has put it on the lips of classic PC gaming fans the world over. Kickstarter essentially connects creators and fans with no middle man. Voluntary contributors can donate dollars towards project proposals, giving indie game development a model with which it can stand on its own two legs, and for game designers which earned their ‘cult’ status in the adventure gaming golden age of the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s, crowdfunding gives them a new means to do what they love.

Lori and Corey launched their Kickstarter project, ‘Hero-U: A Rogue to Redemption’ on October 19th of this year. Essentially it is a brand new fantasy roleplaying adventure, instilled with the same fun and humour of The Quest for Glory series. As of this post they only have a few days left on the project funding period. Corey was kind enough to answer a few questions for me during the home stretch towards the development future of their new game.

Me: What sparked your return to game design?

A perfect storm of;

1. The rise of crowdfunding for games.
2. The success of recent adventure game projects on Kickstarter.
3. We had already started back into games by doing contract design for outside projects.
4. Making contact with Andrew Goulding to lead the programming.
5. Getting past some family issues that were eating up our time, and
6. Dropping out of World of Warcraft, which was taking the rest of our time.

From the information you've released on Hero-U it really seems to share the ‘tongue-in-cheek’ tone of the Quest for Glory series. Would you say this game is connected to that universe or is it more of a spiritual successor?

Yes.  Or maybe it's "and" rather than "or". We can't make a new Quest for Glory (no license), but our brains are wired into that Universe, so inevitably similar things will creep into Hero-U. As for the humour, my brain is wired that way too.  I see absurdity all around me and usually feel the need to comment on it.

Hero-U definitely seems to have that classic adventure/RPG aesthetic. Are there any more modern gaming sensibilities that you are incorporating into the game?

Well, it's our game, and we love tabletop role-playing, and that's what the "classic adventure/RPG aesthetic" is all about. We're using Unity for a platform-independent experience, and we're taking advantage of the increased memory and processing speed of current PC's. But instead of using that for ever-more-detailed 3D graphics and millions of polygons, we're packing a lot of that power into the artificial intelligence, character, and story side of the game.  And nice graphics too.

Aside from Lori and yourself, are any more of the ‘old guard’ from the Sierra days involved with Hero-U?

Not directly, but we're all supporting each other's projects.  The Leisure Suit Larry, SpaceVenture, and Moebius projects have all promoted Hero-U recently, and we're sending people their way.  We all feel that building a bigger audience for modern adventure games is good for everyone – us and the players.

Crowd sourced funding is clearly ideal for veteran game designers with cult followings such as yourself. How is it different working independently without a publisher like Sierra behind you? Is there anything you miss about the traditional game development structure?
With a publisher, you propose a game, nothing happens for a while, then they either say "Yes" or "No" – with "No" much more common.  Even when they say "Yes", they might decide to cancel the project any time during development.  With crowd-funding, things are much more transparent.  You can see the momentum build.  But in a sense that also makes the process more stressful – Until the project passes its goal, you have to keep wondering, "Will we make it?"

As for working independently, we've done that before.  For the Shannara project, we set up an office in Oakhurst, and worked with artists around the world (as well as a few local ones). Most of our contact with Legend Entertainment was remote.

Hero-U will be similar. Even though we don't have a publisher breathing down our necks, and we know that funding won't be cancelled, we have to answer to our backers. We will have complete transparency about the process and progress, and we will pay close attention to suggestions from the people who supported our new game from the beginning.

What has changed about game development since you last worked on a Quest for Glory title?

It's split into two paths. On the one, AAA titles have gotten completely ridiculous. They have teams of hundreds, spend years developing a game, spend tens of millions of dollars on development, and that much or more on promotion. The top games sell millions of copies, and most of the rest lose money.

We saw the beginnings of that with Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire. I think it started with a $1.5 million budget and an 18-month development cycle. It ended up taking more than twice the time and three times the original budget, as we kept developing new 3D technology, trying and eliminating MMO functionality, and so on. Much of the expense was necessary, and much was... well, "wasted" is too strong a term, since we learned a lot from every experiment.

On the other path are the indie games. Many are made by young developers living with their parents, and most are on total shoestring budgets. Our budget for Hero-U looks more like an indie than an AAA budget, but we will be making at least an "A" level of game. It's too small to interest a traditional publisher, but it's a big ask for fans to support.      

I think there's a strong need for "in-between" games costing between $100K and $1M to develop. Players want a smooth, attractive game experience, and they don't necessarily need vast 3D worlds and finely tuned multiplayer automatic weapon fire in those games. I want to see more mid-range, high-quality games, particularly ones that explore different genres and game styles than the big blockbuster titles.

Where did the concept for Hero-U begin? Did you have a story you wanted tell and built mechanics around it or vice versa?

Ah, origin stories.  "In the beginning..."

Ok, you could point to lots of antecedents. Lori was a schoolteacher before she became a game designer. Our "Fantasy Guild" (homebrew rules system that led to the Quest for Glory skill and spell system) campaign featured "The School of Harad Knox". We had a "correspondence school for adventurers" in Quest for Glory.
But more recently, the idea of the school came from a young adult novel Lori started on with Mishell Baker.  They created the How To Be A Hero site to support it. Later, I worked with Lori on the successor site,  Hero-U is our project to make the school more game-like and available to many more players.  We upgraded to a "University" to make the game feel more adult.

Which aspect of Hero-U are you most excited for your fans to experience?

Exploring the catacombs, and the trickiness-based tactical combat, is going to be a lot of fun. But the main thing that Hero-U offers is more subtle. Everyone will experience the story differently as the result of their decisions. The game will feel as though we tailored it for each individual player. In a sense, we're doing just that.

This isn't some generic throw-away story to act as an excuse for the game play.  The story and characters are a major part of what makes the game.  Players will immerse themselves and become part of the story.

Where do the development rights to Quest for Glory lie now days? Could you have branded Hero-U as a new QFG title, or were you more interested in keeping some distance from that series due to game design changes in Hero-U?

Activision owns the Quest for Glory rights since the acquired Sierra. We could not do a new (or remade) Quest for Glory game without first obtaining a license. We've heard from three companies that have tried to get that license, but could not get an answer from Activision. The last word was that Activision executives are deciding on a future policy for their adventure game titles. They might reactivate them in-house, license them out, sell the rights, or continue to sit on them.
Earlier this year, Activision authorized to sell a collection with all five Quest for Glory games, plus the original EGA version of QfG1.  We no longer get royalties from the games, but we're delighted that they're back "in print" and that new players can experience our games.
Since we could not do a Quest for Glory game, we are not trying to make a clone of one. Certain things are common, such as the mix of adventure and role-playing, the strong emphasis on characters and story, etc. If you look at it that way, I guess you would say that Atlas Shrugged is to Moby Dick. J  As with novels, the computer adventure game genre allows for a wide variety of stories and styles.
Of course, we're closer to Quest for Glory than those examples. All Stephen King novels feel as though they came from the same pen.  Hero-U is set in Marete, our world's analogue of Crete, a location last seen in Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire. There are reasons for the setting, but we probably could have placed the school in Iberia with similar results. We set it on Marete as a nod to our fans and because we "know" that area inside-out from previous game research.
But we have a different type of story to tell this time. Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption is all about a particular Rogue, Shawn O'Conner, and his search for redemption... or power.  We let the player choose his path. It's a coming-of-age story, and your character will change dramatically during the course of it.  Nominally, Quest for Glory 1 was also a coming-of-age story, but the Hero really didn't change much other than in stats and skills. Shawn will experience real character growth in the player's hands.

In terms of your plans for Hero-U, do you think this game will be the first in a series, or are there other gaming projects you’re interested in pursuing after this one?
We want to make it the beginning of a series. Your actions in one game will affect the next, but you will play a different character in each story. The second game revolves around a female Wizard with a completely different background, motivations, and personality from Shawn.

How do you feel about the current independent game development movement?
It's exciting. The challenge is for all of these indie games to get noticed. There is also an issue in that a lot of them are what a professional developer would consider throw-away prototypes. They may be unfinished, unpolished, or just plain bad. It can be really hard to tell the difference.
Maybe what we need is an objective (probably with some subjective points) game rating system. Two excellent blogs ( and are devoted to exhaustively analysing classic RPG's and adventure games respectively. We need something like that for current games.

Most of the game trade press either prints press releases as though they were articles, or has intimate carnal relations with the games from the biggest publishers and the largest advertising and slush fund budgets. You can get a good anecdotal idea of some current games from less biased sites such as, but it's necessarily incomplete.
I'd like to see an independent site with a huge database of games classified by multiple different criteria, and with lots of fan and critic ratings.  I guess comes closest among the sites I've seen, but they could use a lot more ratings and reviews. I'm also not sure how much attention they pay to indie games from small developers.  Few players = few ratings.

You’ve previously stated that you’re interested in making more thoughtful, challenging and less violent gameplay mechanics. Is Hero-U a good representation of this?

Yes. Combat is turn-based, so there is no twitch action in the game. Even Quest for Glory had real-time combat, and some players found it frustrating. We do have combat, but it's presented as a puzzle or problem, rather than a violent fight. Hero-U is suspenseful, not gory. And the story is about becoming a Hero, or consciously choosing to do non-Heroic things. We reward thoughtful actions and good decisions.

Many classic adventure game designers are jumping back into development via crowd sourcing like Kickstarter. Who else from the Sierra Online days would you like to see launch a new project, or which classic series would you love to see revived?
Well, it would be great to see Ron Gilbert make a new game. Of course, he's working with Tim Shafer on Double Fine Adventure, so that may fulfil that goal.
We had a pretty small cadre of Sierra designers, and most of them have already had successful Kickstarters – Al Lowe, Josh Mandel, Scott Murphy, Mark Crowe, and Jane Jensen. The obvious missing one is Roberta Williams. You never know though – She has always had the story-teller's itch and might decide to make a comeback.
Jim Walls is in his 70's, and probably not interested in making more games. That pretty much covers the Sierra designers most people have heard of.

If there are younger gamers reading this, that might not have ever played your classic adventure/RPG’s, how would you convince them to get behind the Hero-U Kickstarter?
Ask them, "Did you love Harry Potter? Or Lord of the Rings? How about Brave?" We're making a story telling game that combines that type of heroism and fantasy elements. Like "The Hobbit", Shawn O'Conner is a relatively unimportant person until he finds himself thrust into the midst of adventure and given the chance to be a Hero or a scoundrel.
Hero-U is unlike most current games, in that our focus is not on violent action or fast reflexes. It's like reading a good book or playing a board game with friends – Slower-paced, but just as much drama and suspense. Humor too, because good dramas are better with some humor in between the tension.

Do you have a launch window in mind for Hero-U?
There should be some tall enough buildings in San Francisco if the Kickstarter fails... Oh, you mean for the game!  We're targeting October 2013. Our smaller budget means we should be able to get the game out in less than a year; in fact we almost have to do that unless we get additional funding during development. The goal is to make the game relatively modest in scope – All of the action takes place in the school and catacombs – but gigantic in story, characterization, and depth of game play.

Hero-U's funding period ends November 20th. If you're reading this and you love classic adventure/roleplay gaming you can make your pledge on the Hero-U Kickstarter page right now.

Friday, April 27, 2012

State of (free to) play

Free to play is the new black, it seems. No longer associated with bad Korean MMO's, and cheap, simple flash games, free to play is really starting to hit its stride. There is an amazing amount of triple-a quality F2P games out there now, and many more in the pipeline. What has caused this seemingly sudden influx of F2P titles? To me it seems that a few strong games paved the way, proving that there was a burgeoning audience that were willing to pay for their games in small amounts at a time, via micro-transactions, and since the model has been proven effective, a lot of other publishers are trying to replicate the success of games like Lord of the Rings Online and Team Fortress 2.

But what does this mean for the gaming industry at large? Is the free to play model a direction that the industry is going to move towards perpetually, and every game will cease to be an iteration, and become more of a service, in which players have to pick and choose what they would like to pay for, smorgasbord style? I don't think so. I think there will always be room for both. There can be no complaints about the current crop of F2P games. There is a vast amount of free gameplay out there at the moment, thousands of hours that anyone can download and try without paying a cent.

Therein lies the only hitch in all this free to play goodness that I can see; there is just so many free to play games out there, and many more coming, that are wholly dependent on strong player communities, and every time a new one is released, is it sapping the player base from other existing games? When Blacklight Retribution and Tribes Ascend hit the web, does that mean an exodus of players from the Team Fortress 2 community? Is there just going to be so many F2P games out there down the track, so that no single game can grow a good, strong multiplayer community, each new game diluting the pool even further? I think some games will swim, and others will sink. The battle for free to play supremacy is going to get nasty, and if a game isn't at 100% at launch, as many games aren't, then they run the risk of not capturing that dedicated fan-base, and dissolving into un-patched, and unsupported obscurity. Maybe a champion will rise, much like World of Warcraft did for MMO's a few years back, and become the super-success that other developers strive to replicate. Only time will tell.

If you are interested in some free to play goodness, here are some of my current favorites that you can download right now, free!

Lord of the Rings Online - A vast, fantastic MMO RPG. This one came out in 2007, and I think it's aging nicely. Solid visuals, great atmosphere, and a gift from Vala for Tolkein fans. This thing takes it Ring's lore very seriously. You can play pretty well up to the mid level 20's without any real need to spend money, but with ponies, cool cosmetic gear and extra bag slots, they make it mighty tempting.

Team Fortress 2 - Smooth, well presented shooter chaos. Class based team matches, a great sense of character, a very strong player base, and the hats, oh the hats. You need never spend a dollar to get some great gameplay out of this one. Refined shooter goodness. Can't recommend it enough.

Blacklight Retribution - I would love to recommend this, as it's a great looking futuristic shooter, with player and weapon customization, all done on the Unreal 3 engine, but as the game currently has no Australian servers, I can't join a game with a ping less than 400ms, making the game essentially unplayable. The developer, Zombie Games, is promising Aussie support soon.

Tribes Ascend - Newly released sequel to the classic Tribes series. I'm heavily into this one at the moment. Great sense of speed and movement, thanks to the skiing mechanics and jetpack. Sci-fi setting, team based shooter gameplay, huge levels; a classic reborn.

 Age of Empires Online - An online RTS, with some persistent city building mechanics thrown in. This game had an underwhelming launch for some reason, but I pick it up from time to time, and I'm transported back to 1997, when I fell in love with the original Age of Empires. This is a great little game with a nice art style and some good RTS gameplay.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Devil's dopamine

Diablo 3 is finally upon us, and with under a month to go until it's launch, it feels further away to me than ever. The level of 'schoolgirl giddiness' is reaching fever point. The game has been eleven years coming, and for me it can't get here soon enough.

The thing about Diablo to me is that it's a very neatly perfected experience. In the same way that Call of Duty is to shooter fans, Diablo knows exactly how to push the hack 'n slash RPG buttons. It has such a clearly defined, and deceptively simple gameplay rhetoric, that to someone who's never played, and is just watching you over your shoulder, the cycle of play can seem mind numbingly boring.

This is the genius of Diablo's design. It bypasses the critical lobes and strikes right to the brains pleasure centers with trickles of warm dopamine. It's an almost pure grind and reward based system, and if you're the kind of gamer that's susceptible to this kind of thing, it's like a digital drug.

So just when you might have finally weened yourself from Blizzards other gaming addiction of choice, World of Warcraft, Diablo 3 is arriving. Time to take that week off from work, (just sight personal reasons and hopefully the boss will ask no more questions), stock up the pantry with some high protein, easy to prepare food rations, and fill the fridge with your favorite caffeine laced, high sugar carbonated drink, and get ready to descend into a state of gaming bliss.

If you can't wait a month, and God knows, I'm finding it tough, here is a list of games that know how to dangle that 'virtual candy' in front of you, and illicit the same kind of reward based, psychotropic response that Diablo does so well...

Titan Quest, 2006 - Diablo's sexy cousin. Rinse and repeat Diablo gameplay, with a mythical, classical antiquity vibe. You'll come for the delicious graphics (even by today's standards), and stay for the three skillpoints you get every level, and random rewards like 'Cleopatra's swift gladius of flame'.

Call of Duty, 2007 forward
- Play any Call of Duty multiplayer post CoD 4: Modern Warfare, and you will find it hard to stop. Long after you should have become sick of the levels, and the refined shooter gameplay, the perk and gun unlock system will keep you playing, because you just really need the new scope and paint-job for the G36C!

Burnout Paradise, 2008 - I'm not a huge racing game fan, I dabble, but I've never reached the fanatical level that games like Forza or Gran Turismo seem to demand from their fans (both of which could easily be put on this list), but I do have a special place in my heart for this racing gem. It gives you a beautiful, colorful open world city to explore, great arcade racing mechanics, nice sountrack and cool, slick presentation, and then dangles these awesome car rewards in front of you. You know you don't need to unlock every car... but you need to unlock every car!

Dawn of War II, 2009 - It's hard not to love the Warhammer 40k universe. I've never played the tabletop game, just admired it from afar, and Dawn of War II stands as it's best representation in video-game form, or so I'm told from Warhammer players. I loved it. A great strategy/RPG hybrid, and upon completing every mission you get to level up your badass space marines, and you get wargear, oh the wargear! Chainswords, huge power hammers, massive plasma guns; nothing feels better than the first time you can don your squad commander in some mean looking terminator armor.

World of Warcraft, 2004 - I don't need to say much about this one. Even if you've never played it, reputation alone points to it's addictive qualities. This is the game that has had me doing some of the most ridiculous, tedious things in game, just to get some kind of carefully calculated, dopamine inducing reward. I've spent countless hours completing in-game achievements, just so I can add the title 'the explorer', or 'the Argent Champion' to my character. When you are in the throws of a serious WoW binge, you just know your life will be content and complete if you can just unlock that black proto-drake, but it's never enough. There is always something else around the corner that you know your little character is just going to 'need'. WoW turns you into a grown man that patiently sits around trying to 'dress up' your character to be the meanest and look the coolest, like a six year old girl dressing up her Barbie dolls. It's sad, it's silly, but I love it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The princess and the planet

Few works of science fiction writing from the very early twentieth century are as seminal as Edgar Rice Burroughs 'A Princess of Mars'. The pulp classic was first published in 1917, before Burrows made his most famous creation, Tarzan, and before high-concept, adventure-sci-fi had grown all of those wonderful cliches' we enjoy today. A Princess of Mars has been sighted as a fundamental inspiration for science fiction writers all through the 20th century and up until today. Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and countless others all read Princess growing up, sewing the seed of fascination with science fiction. Even many scientists and futurists, people who would go on to drive humanities exploration of space and search for extraterrestrial life, sight the book as a childhood inspiration.

The plot is revolutionary in terms of when it was written, and generates sci-fi staples that have been seen in everything from books and movies to video games ever since. It centers around John Carter, an American confederate civil war veteran, who finds himself transported to Mars after entering a mysterious cave. He is then embroiled in a war between two alien factions, falls in love, and saves a civilization. The book is an adventure in the grand tradition, but very much science fiction at its core, and the first in a series of books, known as the 'Barsoom' series.

There have, of course, been several attempts at a film adaptation over the years since the book became a classic of the genre. Currently Walt Disney Pictures is set to release its big budget take on A Princess of Mars later this year. See trailer below.

It's interesting to see that the words 'Princess' and 'Mars' are nowhere to be seen in the trailer for Disney's latest adaptation. As the story circling the internet goes, these words were very carefully omitted by Disneys marketing department. They are slating the film as simply 'John Carter'. Their reasoning? They don't want to alienate any sector of the film-going public. The marketing boffins over at Disney figure that no male 15 to 60 will go see a Disney movie with the word 'princess' in the title, and subsequently no female from the same broad age demographic will go see a movie with the word 'mars' in the title. I'm not saying this is sacrilege, be it slightly disrespectful to the fans of the book, and somewhat sexist, but I do think it's a strong inditement on the power that Hollywood marketing departments wield. John Carter is just a name, a blank, empty title for a movie that means nothing to anyone that has never read Princess, but that is preferable to Disney, as the books actual name might conjure images of cartoon princesses kissing frogs and tedious space battles in the minds of film-goers and 'turn them off'. I'm not saying they are wrong, they may be absolutely correct, but it would be very interesting if history could have a re-do, and the film could be released under the books original name, and the box-office taking could be compared.

I look forward to seeing the finished film, whatever the title may be, but Disneys compromising attitude does make me wonder how this adaptation is going to turn out. If they are ready to compromise on the title of the film what else have they compromised on, and potentially diluted along the way? Time, and the reception of the film by Barsoom series fans, will tell.