Developer's postmortem: Cosmos Quest
First posted on 01 July 2011. Last updated on 01 July 2011.
The author wishes to acknowledge Hristina Petrova for her assistance in the translation.
Fans of Space Quest will instantly be familiar with Cosmos Quest, a classic point-and-click adventure game series from Bulgarian indie game developer Ilia Kinanev. To date, 3 games have been released for download in the series: Cosmos Quest I: To Find a Sun, Cosmos Quest II: To Find a Sun (Episode 2), and Cosmos Quest III: The Mines of Isagor. The first and second games are free. The third game, initially released as a commercial game in 2009, is now also free. Despite the clear influence of Space Quest, the core story of Cosmos Quest draws influences from hardcore science fiction and explores epic themes classic to the genre that will please many sci-fi fans.
For more information, visit Cosmos Quest.
It all began in 2006 on a boring working day when I suddenly reminisced about my school years and the games I used to play as a youth. I came across Space Quest 0: Replicated, a fan made game which I had never heard of previously, even though I had played all the games in Sierra's Space Quest series by which this game was inspired. Soon, I found out that there was a whole online community of adventure game fans with a website dedicated solely to the game. I got curious about how this fan game was made. I discovered several popular tools used to develop adventure games. After a brief research, I chose Adventure Game Studio (AGS) and started making my own games.
- The following article was originally written in part in Bulgarian. It was translated to English and edited.
Choosing the tool
I chose AGS because it was a popular freeware tool used by many game fans who wanted to make their own graphical adventure games. I found it to be a convenient development tool that was frequently updated and had a useful help function. No special programming or animation skills were required to use the software. It was a perfect tool for the game project I had wanted to do.
When I was in school, I had long desired to create my own adventure game. I decided to make a fan game based on Space Quest. I knew there were many gamers of my age who were yearning for the older classic quest games of Sierra and LucasArts. That was why many of the characters and actions in Cosmos Quest were heavily influenced by Space Quest. I was keenly aware of the fact that my game would be far from the cannon, but I knew that I would be satisfied if I could make many likeminded gamers happy by turning back time to a bygone era of good old adventure games.
That was how Cosmos Quest started. It took me around 2 years to finish the first and second games in the series—Cosmos Quest I: To Find a Sun and Cosmos Quest II: To Find a Sun (Episode 2). As I worked as a web designer, I also created an official website for Cosmos Quest (http://www.cosmos-quest.com), with a maintenance cost of about $20USD a year. More importantly, it was around this time that the idea for a commercial game was born.
I soon found myself in need of more time for developing the game. I already had a fulltime job and had initially considered working half-day. As I had used a retouched sprite from Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Ripper to create the character Apo Lanski in the first and second Cosmos Quest games, I could not commercialize them due to copyright infringement of Sierra's intellectual properties.
On the other hand, the constantly increasing number of downloads and the encouraging comments I received from fans who had played my games made me think that the third Cosmos Quest game could be commercially successful if I were to put into a lot more efforts to create unique characters and improve the graphics for the game.
This was how I started on the commercial development of Cosmos Quest III: The Mines of Isagor. Taking all the recommendations and criticisms into consideration, I diligently began preparing the background materials for the game. For me, this was actually the most pleasant part of the development work process. It inspired me to create the music, the puzzles, and all the tiny but significant details needed to be included to make a great adventure game.
I used an old tracker for composing the music in Cosmos Quest, using free samples I found on the internet. As a guitarist myself, I was familiar with the process of music composition. I also knew, however, that composing sci-fi genre music and guitar music were very different. Still, the underlying music theory would be all the same, no matter of which instrument. So, I drew from whatever experience I had to score the game.
The puzzles in Cosmos Quest III: The Mines of Isagor provoked a lot of arguments among gamers who played the game. Some liked them; some considered them incoherent; some were even irritated.
I do not have an explanation for the criticisms. I guess that my puzzles somehow replicate the nature of the puzzles found in classic quest games. I like those puzzles as I am used to those games. Unfortunately, it appears this is not enough for a commercial game, even if it is indie. Rather, I discover that the puzzles need to appease the taste of the gamers who are willing to buy the game. This is a key moment and revelation. When a developer decides to go commercial, the developer loses the freedom as well as (I must confess) the amusement derived from the whole process of game creation.
Subsequently, I read a lot of posts from online forums and blogs about the puzzles in these classic quest games. For example, a Space Quest fan complained in a review of Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter about a scene in the game where the main character lands in a rescue capsule on the alien planet Kerona. While being inside the capsule, the player (playing as the main character) must take a survival kit which, however, does not appear on screen. I personally do not mind this puzzle. I simply consider it to be a bigger challenge because it provokes me to think what I need to do in such a situation. To me, it is logical to look for a first aid or survival kit before going outside a spaceship to a potentially hostile world. Some gamers do not like the puzzles in Cosmos Quest that are similar, such as the puzzle with the radiation in Cosmos Quest II or the panel of the rock in Cosmos Quest III. I am an old-school quest gamer, and I understand that my taste in adventure games may be different from those of many younger gamers.
In Cosmos Quest, I have also pondered on the issue of saturation of the active objects in a scene. In my opinion, the active objects need not to be purposely more saturated than the background or be put in more visible places so that they can be more easily spotted. This ruins the atmosphere of the whole scene. There is no challenge when the setup for a puzzle is so obvious.
Working on my own
As I have some prior experience working in a development team, I confess that creating an adventure game entirely on my own has its pros and cons.
The pros are:
• work anytime and anywhere, most importantly, when you have the inspiration
• no deadlines
• no proof of the work done
• more flexibility
The cons are:
• miss problems in the design that are easily noticed by others
• lack richer details through team work and collaboration
As I am not fluent in English, scripting the dialog presents a major challenge for me and has taken up most of my time spent on developing Cosmos Quest. It is a good idea to seek assistance from a native English speaker for help in creating the dialogs. For future projects, I definitely will consider taking on another developer who is willing to work on the dialog alone.
Creating a game series
Creating a game series is substantially different from creating a single adventure game. When working on a series, I need to carefully consider the timeline of events in each game. I have to be careful about the eventual time collision as the timeline often jumps from scene to scene which may be in a different time spot. Further, certain scenarios from the current game are inevitably connected to scenarios from past games, which themselves then steal from the freedom when creating the future games in the series.
Overall, my advice to any indie game developer who is deciding on creating an adventure game: you must be prepared for the restricted freedom as the architect, and you must be prepared for the criticism that the game will generate. It is impossible to create a game that will satisfy all gamers. Commercializing a game is just another step further in the game development process and needs to be balanced against the risk of losing the creative freedom and pleasure from the project.
It is your game. It is your choice.