Interview with Crystal Shard, creators of “A Tale of Two Kingdoms”

Lately, a game named “A Tale of Two Kingdoms” has drawn the attention of the general public. The Project leader, Radiant and three other team members kindly took the time to answer the questions of the AGS Ezine.

   Ezine: Tell us a bit more about yourselves – what you do, what you like etc.  

 

Pieter: I’m a software engineer from The Netherlands, with a full-time job, although I’ve been into game design since I was a student. I like travelling, reading books, and gaming, although by the latter I tend to mean boardgames and tabletop roleplaying, rather than computer games. Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t play computer games all that much. I am said to have a quirky sense of humor, and enjoy meeting new people, such as at the Mittens meet.

 

Nikolas: I’m Nikolas Sideris and I’m a composer and sound designer. At the moment I’m at my third year of PhD in composition and I’m also working on several computer games.

 

Fizzii: I’m an engineering/science student from Australia, and have been creating graphics since around 2002. I play the violin and enjoy reading and playing the occasional computer game. I generally like games with a storyline, although I do play The Sims a fair bit as well. 

 

Meerbat: I am a biologist who just completed his Diploma thesis in Munich, Germany, in the field of evolutionary biology and ecology. I am originally from Bulgaria, but have moved a lot in the past few years. I enjoy travelling, though it is mostly work-related in my case. I also like reading books, drawing, playing card and board games, and snorkeling.

 

Ezine: How did the idea for “A Tale of Two Kingdoms” originate?  

 

Pieter: It was inspired by a number of things, most notably a fondness for mythology and fairy tales, as well as certain classic adventure games. Having several cubic yards of fantasy novels in my house also helps.

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Ezine: How was the team assembled?  

 

Pieter: A variety of ways. For several months, I kept an eye on the thread on the AGS forum for people who offer to help, and contacted several of those for ATOTK. Several other team members approached me, asking if they could help out. And yet others were friends of existing team members, and were drawn in by them. We ended up with a very large team, by indie standards, not including nearly fifty people who offered their help at some point but turned out to be short on time, or having a style that was too different from ours.   

 

Nikolas: Radiant was constantly on the look out for members who would potentially help the creation of ATOTK. When I first joined the AGS forums, I places a sort of ad and pretty soon I was contacted by Radiant about the game. We stuck together since then (around 2 years ago).

 

Fizzii: Pieter happened to see a CoC background paintover I had posted in a forum in late 2004 and asked if I would like to join. At the time I had no idea as to the amount of work required in making a game from scratch.

 

Ezine: How did you keep in touch?  

Pieter: Mainly through our forum, although we used e-mail a lot to e.g. exchange resources. Also, we’ve planned semi-regular chat sessions, where everybody would turn up on ICQ or MSN at the same time. This proved somewhat tricky because of the time zones involved – we have team members in Europe and America as well as Australia.

 

 

Nikolas: E-mails, monthly chats, MSN. As a matter of fact, whenever one member of the team (at least the core members) travel to some place where another member is, we to strive to meet. That said, when Radiant was in London, we did meet and chat. Hope to see him again rather soon over here, and of course I would hope to see all the team here. 🙂

 

Fizzii: Chat sessions meant I had to get up at 6am since nearly everyone else lives on the other side of the world, though fortunately, I’m a bit more of a morning person (grin). I also chatted on MSN regularly with Meerbat, the portrait artist, and we worked on some art together, notably the cutscene art (and Meerbat also created some cute animal sprite art while we were discussing possible creatures to put in the ATOTK world).

 

Meerbat: Besides from the forums and the scheduled team chats, we used instant messenging a lot. It was especially helpful for sharing and showing the latest graphics, getting feedback and making the appropriate retouches.

 

 Ezine: What would you advise ambitious game developers who take up large-scale projects with big teams?  

 

Pieter: Generally I would advise them to tackle a smaller project first, because it’s hard to envision the amount of work involved otherwise, and it’s easy to run out of steam. Also, it would seem that smaller teams work more effectively than big teams.  Other than that, communication is vital. The team needs a central person who keeps in touch with everybody and roughly knows what they’re up to. Other than keeping in touch, communication includes being honest about what you can and cannot do, and encouraging feedback from everybody. If a musician doesn’t like a particular sprite, or a background artist has an idea for the story, they should tell the rest of us. All involved should be willing to consider changing and improving their work based on feedback, because if they don’t, chances are that when the games come out, players will make the same comments or complain about them.  From my experience, indie teams tend not to work well with manager-types that contribute no other skills (such as art or coding) to the collaboration, nor with people that have no clear role or task on the team and simply seem to hang around, nor with having overly many storywriters. It’s fine to get ideas and feedback from everybody, it’s not fine to have five writers and one artist.

 

Nikolas: Hmmmmm…. That IS indeed difficult. From my experience, the main thing is that the team members need to respect each other and the work they do. A project leader is a must, and Radiant has been perfect all through the past 2 1/2 years. Also, what is vital, for me at least, is to know in advance how much work is needed, deadlines, and most details for the project. It is one thing to have a deadline six months ahead and need to compose 20 minutes of music, or having a deadline, whenever and having to write however much music for a game.

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Ezine: Why a fantasy game? Don’t you think that there are quite many of those?  

 

Pieter: While there are quite many games in a fantasy setting, in the past few years there haven’t been many adventure games in that setting. Also, fantasy is a very broad genre; we’ve tried to put in things that are uncommon to fantasy, like the goblins’ code of honor, the otherwordly fairies, or the tattoo-based sorcerers with their Pact. Actually the short answer is simply that I like fantasy. I read a lot of fantasy books (Hobb, Zelazny and Erikson being my favorites, as of late) and the “oldschool” games that I like best are the fantasy games like Quest for Glory and LOOM.

 

Nikolas: Well fantasy games are out there pretty much, but I have to say that ATOTK is very much researched and well thought. Furthermore we have to agree that fantasy comes close with imagination (actually in Greek it is the same word :D) so you can never have enough imagination.

 

Ezine: How much time did it take you to finish the game, from scratch to the release of v.1.0?  

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Pieter: About two and a half years, although I should note we took a break occasionally to do something else, such as creating the adventure games META and Warthogs.

 

Ezine: How much time a week did each of you put into creating the game?  

 

Pieter: This varies wildly, because to me, inspiration comes in waves. At the lowest points, I would do nothing at all related to ATOTK for up to a month. At the highest points, I would stay up until 3 AM several nights in a row to get the work done, or spend a full weekend coding, nearly as if it were a full-time job.

 

Nikolas: Oh, that depends. I’m always working on many projects at a time. So when dedicating to the ATOTK game, I would spend more than 20 hours a week. But this would go on for 1-2 weeks time, and then I would go on to a different project, to come back to ATOTK later on.

 

Fizzii: On average, I worked a few hours a week on the graphics. Motivation wasn’t a big problem for me, though when the whole team gets tired, it becomes hard to do work as well.

 

Meerbat: The time I could set aside for working on ATOTK was highly irregular. It depended on the course load I had during the semesters, but I could actually work the least during vacations, because I didn’t have access to the right software and hardware to keep working. Of course after the original to-do list was complete at some point, work became less intensive, though in the graphics department, we spent the time going back and retouching previous work or sometimes coming up with new ideas for close-ups, cutscenes, or critters.  

 

Ezine: How long did it take to beta test the game? Were there any notable obstacles during that period?  

 

Pieter: There have been tests on various builds of the game for at least a year, although several of these are technically alpha tests. In notable obstacles, I remember a build or two that I made late at night that turned out to crash in the second room or so, forcing me to make a new build the next day, and there were a few obscure bugs that were hard to track down because we weren’t sure which room was causing them. What helped was the presence of some good debug options. Other than the standard “get all items” and “teleport” functions, this includes e.g. night mode toggle, cycling through all portraits, or playing any piece of music anywhere.

 

Nikolas: Our strive for perfection got in the way a little bit, as we were beta testing constantly the game, and were nitpicking the game for around 8-9 months now, if not more. So while the game was almost there (let’s say 97% done) we would always touch up things, thus create new bugs to be beta tested. And the game was a rather lengthy one, so beta testing it was a tedious process.

 

Fizzii: Testing a non-linear game of this scope took up a lot of free time. This was notably due to the multiple paths that could be taken, and so it was easy to miss trying out several things which players subsequently tried once the game was released. The logging function was especially useful however, since bugs could be written down in the game without having to switch windows, and a .txt file was made so that bug reports could simply be copied and pasted.

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Ezine: How was the music created? What software and synths did you Ezine: use?

 

Nikolas: Speaking for myself, because there were other composers on the game as well, I only did additional music on the game, I composed as I compose for anything else. I was give descriptions and much info about the game and scene, and I was composing to what Radiant needed. The intro music, was synced to the original intro scene, not still on the game, and was treated like writing music for film, with sync points, tempo changes etc. Software wise, I used my studio equipment. Cubase SL3, EastWest Quantum Leap symphonic orchestra Gold, and Symphonic Choirs, and my beloved sennheiser HD 600 headphones.  

 

Ezine: What about graphics? How did you manage to create such a vast amount of sprites, backgrounds and portraits with such consistency?  

 

Pieter: The vast amount is a result of perseverance through a lot of hard work. The consistency is the result of diligent touch-ups. For instance, all the room art was completed over a year ago; but during that year, most rooms were touched up several times, and some of them redone entirely. A useful way is to have two artists touch up each other’s work; this makes the end result more consistent with both sides.

 

Fizzii: I recall touching up some of my backgrounds five or so times, which was not very efficient, but necessary since my art had improved over the course of time spent working on the game.  There were not many completed sprites when I began working on them, hence, it was easier to manage consistency. A couple of friends from Infamous Adventures (KQIII remake) also helped with sprites for a while, and they created sprites with a similar ‘Sierra’ style.

 

Meerbat: Though different people did several different portraits, all portraits were animated by me. Of course there are still some style inconsistencies in the game, but we tried to make these as imperceptible to the player as possible, by having characters who interacted often (for example all the characters in the dinner scene at the beginning) made by the same artist.

 

Ezine: It’s not often that adventure games have alternate solutions to the puzzles or optional ones. What prompted you to take such a gameplay decision?  

 

Pieter: In my opinion, a game should not be a story that you follow from start to finish, but rather a world that you can explore and play around with. This implies giving the player a choice of where to go. It also implies that if a player thinks of a logical way to pass a puzzle, this shouldn’t be denied simply because the designer had another way in mind. Such alternatives are found through lots of testing, as well as not giving the testers the answers in advance. The result is that two people playing the game can have a very different experience, and this encourages them to replay the game to see the parts they’ve missed.   

 

Fizzii: At one time, Pieter went overboard with the multiple solutions, allowing for a bottle of cider to be used to extinguish a fire. As a chemistry student, I was horrified at the idea of throwing alcohol onto a flame.

 

Ezine: Do you think that non-linearity is the way forward for adventure games?  

 

Pieter: I would hope so. I’ve seen that the gaming industry tends to go the other way (for instance, compare the freedom of the original Legend of Zelda with the strict linearity of the Zelda Oracle series), but the indie market can cover for this by going the other way. However, I should note that a non-linear game is significantly harder to design, because there is so much more to account for and it’s easy to have the player end up in a dead end without knowing it.   

 

Nikolas: I would definately say so. Computer games and adventure games, should be games, not books! Of course you need to have some kind of core going on, but other than that an open world, is a must in my books. I always get bugged when I’m encoutered with a simple “You can’t do that yet”, or “you don’t know that”, although it is apparent that it is there and so on.

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Ezine: What are your plans for the future? Will the team stay together? Do you have any future projects in mind? If not, what will each of you do, game-wise?  

 

Pieter: We don’t have any concrete plans as of yet, although there are several ideas that I think are worth developing further. Given that I’ve worked with other genres than adventure games in the past, it may be a nice idea to take a look at yet another genre.

 

Nikolas: I sure hope that the team sticks together. We had great time together and the output was great, as well as the feedback for ATOTK. Other games I’m working on at the moment, including: http://www.atropos-studios.com http://www.theforgottenelement.com  

 

Fizzii: Personally, I prefer adventure games, but if the idea is original or interesting, I’m in! At the moment I am working with IA on their games, but working on multiple projects allows for more creativity and means less monotony, at least for me.

 

Meerbat: It has been an enjoyable experience to do portraits for ags games and I would like to continue that, though it sometimes becomes difficult to find the time to do it. I also like to keep an open mind and maybe experiment with other genre, besides adventures.

 

Ezine: Anything else you’d like to add?  

 

Pieter: With respect to future projects, I would like to point people to our past projects, including SubTerra the puzzle game and Leylines the turn-based strategy, both available on the crystalshard.net site. And thank you for the interview!

 

Nikolas: I huge thank you to the rest of the team, and to Radiant for contacting me in the first place, as well as keeping us together the whole time.

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