Saturday, 18 September 2010

CaptainD Interviews Esteemed AGSers Alex van der Wijst and Igor Hardy

I interviewed Igor Hardy and Alex van der Wijst, who among other things have worked on the adventure game Snakes of Avalon.
 
For those who don't know, "AGSers" is simply a term used to refer to people who use AGS (Adventure Game Studio) to make games (or play them, though programmers probably feel it's necessary to have released at least one completed game before being actually called an AGSer!)
(Some screenshots in this post are from other games Alex has worked on.)

Their answers in the interview are designated thus:
A - Alex van der Wijst
I - Igor Hardy
1/ When did you first come up with the idea for Snakes of Avalon?
A: We were both interested in collaborating for April's MAGS competition.  The rules for that month stipulated that the game had to take place entirely within one room. Igor had two ideas for such a game: a parody of the Predator vs. Cube (an obscure Canadian sci-fi movie), or a drunk guy who overhears a murder plot in a bar.  The rest is history.

I: Is Cube really that obscure? Anyway, the theme of that MAGS competition we entered was simply "one room". The Cube game was an idea that I came up with mainly for a situation where there is very little time to make a game. Also, a fifth Predator film was going to hit the screen in a month or so, so it was a good moment to make fun of that endless saga about alien hunters. But it was a cheesy idea and a game based on it would be probably considered just a joke.

As for our Snakes of Avalon concept - I love to use bars/taverns/inns as settings in games and films. I once made a very short stop-motion film set in one. There's even a background character of a hopeless drunk (wearing a hat) in this film, which was animated with devotion by myself. Also, the concept of a (at the same time) righteous and pathetic drunk trying to stop a murder plot inside a bar is something I thought could work great for a comedy suspense story - a fertile, intriguing premise not unlike that of Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, for example.

2/ How difficult is it to create a full adventure game using just a single room?  What tricks did you use to get round the problem of it feeling too restrictive?
A: If we were to have thought of a conventional room it would have been immensely difficult.  But we were making a game with a drunk as the main character and we thought, why not make the game from a drunk's perspective where reality blurs with hallucination into surrealism.  The result was limitless possibilities.

I: Personally I really enjoy one room games. Or at least my own idea of them. You see, I hate great amounts of pointless walking around and blatant fetch quests from point A to point B. Instead I love having a wealth of unusual options within the hero's hands reach - in other words, a well-designed gameplay based on discovering important game elements specific to each location in the game.

I agree about the limitless possibilities that the hallucinations brought, but they also made me afraid that the player won't treat the game's reality and plot seriously enough to care about it. We struggled quite a bit with the design to make the players feel like their actions have bearing on the game world and that nothing happens only inside the main character's unreliable head.
 

 
3/ How long have you been interested in adventure games, and what is the first graphical adventure game you remember playing?
A: Personally I've been interested since before adventure games were graphical.  I have fond memories of playing text adventures with my mom when I was but a wee lad.  We held on to the Commodore 64 into the mid-1990s, so I was only exposed to graphical adventures on my friend's computers.  I remember being blown away by how immersive these new-fangled games could be.  I think the first one I played [albeit vicariously] was Conquest of the Longbow.

I: My first adventure game ever was Indiana Jones and The Fate of Atlantis. I played it back in 1994 or 1993 when the game was 1 year old I think. But later on I had the pleasure of trying out also the older graphical adventures, as well as Interactive Fiction. In fact, after Sierra and Lucasarts stopped making adventure games I pretty much lost interest in newly released games for a few years, and started focusing on classics I never played (not only adventure). Today, I play almost exclusively indie games and, on occasion, bigger budget adventure games. I wish I had time to try more of the indies - I keep worrying some of the best pass me by.
 
4/ What games made with AGS are you particularly impressed with?

A:  I should start off by saying that I am most impressed by plot/writing and puzzle design in an adventure game.  For me graphics are nice but don't have to be fancy.  The brilliance of Zombie Cow's “Ben There, Dan That” and “Time Gentlemen, Please” amazed me right to the end credits.  I also have a soft spot for the “Barn Runner” series.  Really, there are so many hidden gems at the AGS site, it is hard to pick a few stand-outs.

I: My absolutely fave freeware AGS favorites would be: Anna, A Second Face, Automation, Infinity String, Nelly Cootalot, Murder in A Wheel, The Journey Down, The Winter Rose

As for commercial AGS games go: Blackwell series, TGP! and Downfall. The Blackwell series is a terrific story-driven series with convincing historical background in the vein of Gabriel Knight. Time Gentlemen Please! is a Ben an Dan sequel deservingly cherished for its perfectly designed gameplay. And Downfall is a highly disturbing, but very interesting horror game allowing the player to make important choices. Recently I also had access to an early version of the IGF 2009 finalist Gemini Rue (originally Boryokudan Rue). It's set in a convincing, gritty cyberpunk world and puts an interesting spin on presenting action scenes in adventure games. Could become the Blade Runner of indie gaming.


5/ What are your future plans?

A: Like most AGSers I have an epic game on the back-burner.  And like most AGSers, I plan to finish it in the future.  The problem for me, and for anyone who ever hopes to play this game, is that the future is such a vast and unpredictable beast.

I: Yes, the obligatory epic game project... My epic Frantic Franko kafka-in-a-heroic-fantasy-world game needs to be finished as soon as possible, so I can start an even more epic game. But I have several short and very unusual games in my plans too. As well as one adventure-game-related, secret enterprise. And I hope HardyDev will continue growing too. :)

Besides my personal projects, I'm also helping with animation the brilliant team of Shattenrayze. It will be an epic adventure game which brings together Loom-like music-based spells, platformer segments, and Guitar Hero mini-games. Watch out for it!    
 
6/ What advice would you give someone who wants to make their own game?
A: Don't want it.  DO IT.  Just download the FREE SOFTWARE this instant and start plugging away.  It probably won't turn out how you expected, but you'll learn an incredible amount, build up your confidence and industry contacts, and do so much better the next time.  In the big scheme of things it doesn't really take that long to develop all of the skills necessary.  I can remember writing encouragement to “Noobs” who a year later were capable of so much more than I.  The only trick is to keep at it.

I: There's a lot of good advice propagated around the net. For example, I really must recommend here the articles posted on my website by various (both well and lesser known) adventure game creators. :)

From my own experience... Very specific motivation and constant rewards are the key to finishing a game. Don't expect that you just say to yourself "I would love to make a game like Curse of Monkey Island" and that this one happy thought will be enough to keep you excited for 5 years or more of building the game that are  needed to realize such dream when you're an amateur. Making a game involves a lot of mundane work, so make sure you have the fun, creative tasks spread out throughout the whole production, and not done all at its beginning. Build the game's prototype before finishing anything else. Use programmer's art and don't finalize the graphics before you are very sure of the final shape of the game. Never, and I mean never, let the cat run over your keyboard. Lastly, and most importantly, be sure you're making a game you feel will be something special and worthwhile in your own eyes. If you're doing it, just because you think others will appreciate and highly regard such game, that probably won't be strong enough motivation to finish the thing.

Ok, one more thing I rarely see mentioned. Don't get stuck on improving just one scene or one element/aspect of the game. For example, on getting a perfect walking animation for the main character. Or on creating a few breathtaking backgrounds that are just a small percent of the amount needed. There's a very small chance that you finish your first game if you value your perfectionism-born obsessions before the overall progress.
 

7/ How big a jump is it to go from freeware game maker to indie game maker?

A: It's not as great as you might think.  I've played freeware games from the AGS community that are higher quality than their commercial equivalents.  I see more and more freeware developers who have cut their teeth in the AGS forums and who are now moving on to commercial ventures.  And why not?  They've got the talent, the know-how, and the passion for the adventure scene, but to maximize these assets they need one critical thing: time.  I read again and again on the AGS forums that the top freeware designers can not put the necessary time into their projects AND work their day job. So I think it is a natural evolution for successful freeware designers to move into the indie scene.

I: I agree with Alex that that the quality and, especially, ingenuity of freeware games can sometimes surpass those of commercial titles. I think the most important reason for that is that people who dabble in any kind of creative discipline (be it games, films, or something different) above all else want their work to spread and be noticed, and only later they think about making some kind of money out of their passion. The thing is modern Internet gives quite a good chance of spreading your work without the need of a publisher, or expensive tools, hence we have freeware productions competing against commercial ones. That's a great situation for open-minded gamers who seek games made with passion.

Nevertheless, from what I can observe, the jump from a passionate amateur to the head of an indie studio remains quite a challenge for most freeware game designers. When you finally decide to do it, at least half of your game development actions will have to suddenly become business-oriented. You'll need all the marketing creativity, media attention and luck, you can get. Unfortunately, all of these take lots of time, lots of confidence, lots of trial-and-error, and distract from the more personal game-making goals. Because convincing people that your games are worth paying for is not equivalent to just making a good game - it's your second job. Consequently, you start being pressured by problems like burn-outs in the middle of development and errors at calculating costs vs. profit etc. etc.

Or... alternatively you can just attach a price tag to a finished game and hope at least a handful people will find it worth buying.

 
8/ What do you think of the indie game scene at the moment?

A: It's always going to be a niche market, but it seems to be growing.  For years I never spent a dime on games -why would you when you can play so many good games for free on the AGS site?  But now I find myself following my favourite freeware designers into the indie scene and buying their work, and I'm sure I'm not the only fan doing this.

I: Indie games are my second passion after adventure games. But I'm a tough critic to please. Almost all indie games I play look and sound brilliant and daring - each one quite different from everything that came before it. The small, but ambitious teams, put amazing care into polishing their work, as well as into spreading the word about it. It's a pleasure to see them thrive. However, currently there is one important aspect of indie productions that disappoints me. Namely, at their core, when it comes to gameplay, the indie games I come upon are too rarely truly experimental and daring.

I don't think it's just the result of ignorance that quite a few people mistakenly treat indie games as the same thing as casual games. Indie game designers just like their casual world counterparts are way too worried, that the players won't understand their game quickly enough and will get bored/annoyed/confused. This greatly limits the designers' freedom of experimenting. But I understand the reasons behind this approach - indeed only a small amount of players will appreciate a game that is frustrating at times, yet really breaks new ground with some of its concepts.

Of course there are also several game titles that are extra-polished, delightful to play, and yet their creators didn't shy away from experimenting with new game mechanics and their application possibilities, or at least from pushing them to the extreme. I was very impressed by popular titles like Braid, World of Goo, P.J. Winterbottom. The way they play around with laws of physics and paradoxes and bring them to their limit is great and inspiring. Nevertheless, there are too few indie games like that, no matter what genre.
 
 
9/ What is your favourite adventure game of all time (difficult question I know!)
A:  Space Quest III: the Pirates of Pestulon!

I: Not a difficult question at all. :) If I could choose The Holy Trinity of adventure gaming I would pick Grim Fandango, Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within and Riven. However, If you allow me to pick only one, then Grim Fandango is the synonym of a perfect adventure game for me. Epic yet intimate, funny yet serious, with unique style of presentation, terrific writing and brilliant puzzle design.

Too bad you didn't ask for my Top 5 though, because then I could also mention the lesser known adventure games Azreal's Tear and Black Dahlia. :)


Thanks to both Alex and Igor for agreeing to do this interview.
Readers will also want to know that the final version of Snakes of Avalon has now been released. Get it here.



CaptainD's PC Gaming Blog

4 comments:

gnome said...

Ahhh, another fantastic interview. Great, informative and very inspiring read.

CaptainD said...

Thanks Gnome! :-D

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