Steps to success in creating your own adventure game

Posted by Cris Skelton.
First posted on 05 August 2006. Last updated on 17 July 2010.
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Steps to success in creating your own adventure game
This is a concept art from Phoenix Online Studios' The Silver Lining as inspired by King's Quest.
Steps to success in creating your own adventure game
This is a concept art from Anonymous Game Developers Interactive's remake of Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire.
Steps to success in creating your own adventure game
This is a concept art from Infamous Adventures' remake of King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human.

These images are courtesy of Phoenix Online Studios, Anonymous Game Developers Interactive, and Infamous Adventures.

For more information on Neil Rodrigues, visit Phoenix Online Studios and The Silver Lining.

For more information on Britney Brimhall, visit Himalaya Studios and Anonymous Game Developers Interactive.

For more information on Shawn Mills, visit Infamous Adventures.

A few scant months after the now infamous date of 22 February 1999 that would come to be known as Black Monday, when Sierra On-Line announced the shutdown of its development studios, a group of Quest for Glory fans on the company's official message board were discussing the impossibility of ever seeing another sequel to their favorite series. A few words were exchanged on their disappointment at this realization.

These fans were disillusioned.

All at once and without warning, the once mighty game company, which started with a woman in her California kitchen complaining that computer games did not have graphics, had been gutted and transformed into a faceless corporate logo that was nothing near the greatness that logo once represented.

Suddenly and without warning, the seed of a new idea sprung to life in a simple post.

"We should make our own sequel."

Others began to reply.

"Could we do that? Would anybody have what it might take to write, draw, and program a complete computer game?"

Some fans responded in affirmation. Slowly, others stepped up to the plate.

"I am an artist. I could draw backgrounds."

"I am a software engineer. I could script the game."

A concerned voice then warned against copyright infringement.

"Anyone thinking of creating a fan sequel using trademarked brands and characters would be in serious danger of being sued."

The warning was rebuffed so quickly that it seemed like a no-brainer.

"We could make it an original game; separate, but inspired by."

Just like that, a phenomenon exploded into the lives of adventure gamers everywhere.

Since that day, fans worldwide have banded together in groups, both small and ungainly large, to attempt the incredible—the creation of their own adventure game.

Some groups, such as Anonymous Game Developers Interactive, have had great success in creating their own adventure games and have released them to rave reviews, putting independent game production on the map. By contrast, many other groups seem to be trapped in development hell or have been abandoned altogether.

The number of games announced or started is incalculable and increases with each passing day. The number of games completed is countable by hand.

Why is this? What makes it so hard to create an adventure game? Why are most fans unable to finish what they start?

"There are many reasons why a project could fail, but as far as fangames go the major one is lack of time and motivation," said Neil Rodrigues, Assistant Web Director and Project Manager/Coordinator for Phoenix Online Studios. "If you start something, but then realize you no longer have time to complete it, it becomes a burden, and since you're not getting paid to work, you must have an internal passion to enjoy what you do."

Phoenix Online Studios was formed in 2000 to produce an unofficial sequel to Sierra On-Line's King's Quest series, initially titled King's Quest IX: Every Cloak has a Silver Lining. They have since obtained an official fan license from Vivendi Universal, Sierra On-Line's parent company, to continue development but have changed the game's official name to The Silver Lining. Shadows, the game's first chapter, is projected to be released soon. A novelization of the game is also being planned, to be penned by none other than Peter Spear, author of The King's Quest Companion.

The sentiment was echoed by Chairman and CEO of Himalaya Studios Britney Brimhall, also known as Anonymous Game Developer #1.

"Following any project through to the end requires immense dedication," Brimhall said. "Making a computer game is an enormous project that requires an overwhelming amount of commitment from a number of people."

Brimhall, along with Chairman and President of Himalaya Studios Christopher Warren, founded Anonymous Game Developers Interactive in 2000 under the name of Tierra Entertainment. They released their first game in 2001, a remake of King's Quest I: Quest for the Crown in the style of Sierra On-Line's VGA graphic games of the 1990s. They went on to release an expanded remake of King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne in 2002, retitled King's Quest II: Romancing the Stones. They are currently gearing up to release Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's Mine, their first commercial game, under the Himalaya Studios label and continue work on their remake of Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire with Anonymous Game Developers Interactive.

"I think a lot of people don't realize when they initiate a game project just how much sacrifice it will require," Brimhall said. "Whereas most people enjoy writing a story or making a piece of artwork, most would not enjoy writing hundreds of pages of dialog or drawing over one hundred pictures when they could be socializing with friends or playing video games."

Of course, this is merely the tip of the iceberg. Motivation is key to the completion of everything in life, but it is merely the fuel to the fire.

"Usually, someone comes in with an idea and posts about it, and if we like it we make it," said Shawn Mills, cofounder of Infamous Adventures. "If people are passionate about an idea, then it's going to work. At the end of the day if Steve [Alexander, fellow cofounder of Infamous Adventures] and I love an idea, and there are people willing to work on it, then it'll happen."

Mills, along with Alexander, began Infamous Adventures 3 years ago with the intent of producing Quest for Infamy: So you want to be a Villain?, a parody of Sierra On-Line's Quest for Glory I: So You Want To Be A Hero? in which the main character is a villain trying to conquer the town of Spielberg. Before working on their game though, they decided to hone their game crafting skills by producing a remake of King's Quest III: To Heir is Human.

"Quest for Infamy is a good example of a passionate idea," Mills said. "We started off with Steve and me just talking about the concept of playing a bad guy, and the more we talked the more enthusiastic we got about the concept."

However, an idea and a passionate desire to work only get you so far. What comes next is infinitely more painful.

"Always make sure you have a solid plan before you start," Rodrigues says. "I would say the minute César [Bittar, Project Director and Game Designer for The Silver Lining] says a script is final is when work should officially start."

Brimhall seconded this notion.

"We sometimes get a bit ahead of ourselves and start creating assets after we have the basic storyline worked out," Brimhall said. "The problem with that is we often have to recreate assets as the story and puzzles evolve. It would be wise to have a relatively comprehensive design document created before doing any major work in other departments."

A design document is similar to an outline. It is a laundry list of story elements and their function within the game's framework. The original idea is taken and expanded upon to create an entire picture of the game.

A good, workable design document contains the game's entire story from beginning to end along with most of the puzzles and side quests sketched out, a complete and reliable definition of the world the story takes place in along with a detailed map, thorough descriptions of every character and their motivations within the story, and the story's theme. Additionally, an expression of the game's tone helps the team to understand what is required of the art, gameplay, and other elements that make up the game. It is from this document that every other element grows.

An extremely important part of the design document is a description of what the game is and how it can be brought to life. What resolution is the game going to be played in? Is the game going to use a graphical or text parser interface? If there are graphics, are the graphics going to be static painted 2D backgrounds or completely 3D rendered models? Is the game going to be created using a turnkey engine or is the team going to create its own engine around the game?

Arguably, the most popular free engine used for adventure game creation today is Adventure Game Studio, created by Chris Jones. Both Anonymous Game Developers Interactive and Infamous Adventures use this engine for their games.

"The engine is perfectly suited to the type of games we're making," Brimhall said. "Additionally, we feel loyal to Chris Jones for all the support he's given us over the years. He's been a tremendous help, incorporating everything that we could possibly need into the engine. Building a self-created engine from scratch that is as feature intensive as AGS would take a long time, and in the end we'd basically just have another AGS."

For The Silver Lining, Phoenix Online Studios elected to use Torque, an engine originally designed for first-person action games and not a likely pick for a game such as The Silver Lining.

"The team experimented with different engines," Rodrigues said. "When I first joined they were using Crystal Space, but it was too underdeveloped. Prior to that, they were trying to make their own engine. However, that was taking too long. By the time I was appointed to direct programming we had just switched to Torque, so I was determined to make that work. It's inexpensive, supports 3D, uses C++ and Torque script, and is more stable and feature-complete than Crystal Space. Their community for support isn't bad, either."

The next phase of creation is the acquisition of talent. While there are rare individuals who can write, create art and music, and program an entire game all by themselves, most often an individual with a game to make needs help to realize that goal.

"We have active promotions whenever we require more staff," Rodrigues says. "DeviantArt is a good one because it lets us see people's portfolios beforehand, and internet research works too. Google is your friend. I actually noticed a large amount of applicants arrived by Googling us."

After the design document is completed, the style and engine have been decided upon, and the team is assembled, a company is ready to begin the creation of assets such as art and animations. However, it is around this time that production gets pretty hectic. There are so many great ideas pouring from each team member, and the game begins to come alive. This is where the next major road block shows its nasty head.

"Sierra used to work by having a single person responsible for a project," says Mills. "That's the way IA works. One person has the vision and the rest of the team grabs onto that vision. Somebody needs to be in charge to make the decisions at the end of the day. Committees do not work. As a team leader, listen to your team, absorb their ideas and be willing to change your ideas if they have something better, but don't compromise your vision with every little thing that people say. As the old saying goes, if you try to please everybody all the time, you end up pleasing nobody all the time."

The lead on a project is usually named the project's director and oversees all departments. If the team is very large, as with Phoenix Online Studios, then each department has a department head that oversees the day-to-day operations of that department. If it is a small team such as Infamous Adventures, this is not required and can often create unnecessary miscommunications if used.

"A project's head is generally the scripter for the game, simply because the scripter knows what is done and what isn't," says Mills. "Having a non-scripter in charge of the game is inefficient because they're always going to need to ask the scripter what he/she needs next."

After a hierarchy is in place and a team is assembled, it is time to start creating. This is both the most fun and the most grueling part of the creation of a game. Motivation becomes the most important factor. Not only is a team member responsible for self motivation, that member is responsible for motivating everybody else to continue to work.

"Motivation is basically the whole lifeblood of this project," says Rodrigues. "Because it's unpaid people always have to be motivated to work. Due to the nature of this project, being unpaid and non-commercial, the team has real life priorities that always trump whatever we can assign, resulting in some missed deadlines. Overall, though, I would say people meet deadlines. The more publicity we get and the more fans we have, the easier it is to motivate the team. The fans are what motivate the team to work, and the work is what motivates our fans."

"It's hard not to sound like I'm talking down to other teams, but the main reason teams like AGDI, Phoenix, and IA finish products is because we're not the usual fan-game team," says Mills. "The usual team starts with someone coming up with a great idea, posting a thread on a forum espousing their idea, garnering a few accolades for their idea, forming a team, and starting their own forums. After the excitement passes the production stops. IA isn't like that. We're a group of people with similar outlooks on life and humor and we're all old enough to have real jobs and real lives outside of our hobby. It keeps us grounded in reality. All teams that release a game have something in common: refusing to stop when the enthusiasm inevitably begins to wane."

"We've been lucky to have such a stubborn team," Brimhall says. "If I knew how complicated making a game was before we started the King's Quest I remake, I don't know if I would have continued the project. Luckily, whenever we start something, our sense of pride forces us to finish it regardless of the sacrifices we must endure. Of course, finishing a project always gives us the motivation to propel us into a new project, and the cycle continues."

So, what is the key to starting your own adventure game company that creates and completes adventure games over and over again to critical acclaim?

The answer lies in the holy trinity of preparation, organization, and motivation. It is not enough to come up with an idea and make a few sketches. The game creators need to plan every step, plot every move, organize themselves in a workable and efficient manner, and push themselves forward to success. Whether your muse is the dedicated fans who share your passion, your own strong sense of pride, or the solid grounding of a normal life to keep you focused, you must find a way to persevere.

Tap into as many creative juices as you can and figure out what you need to do to make this project complete. Make sure you have a clear path that is well planned and set goals for yourself regarding what phase of production you want to be in at certain times. A to-do list helps you keep track of what you have and what you need to complete. All this preplanning leaves your mind free to explore the creative aspect of game creation without the chaos that comes with a lack of structure. If the road is made visible and you push yourself to the utmost limits and never give up, you can indeed arrive at the light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps someday your game may be mentioned in the same breath as King's Quest. However, you never know until you do it.

Well, what are you waiting for? Get out there and make that dream a reality!

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