Mike Morrison

Digital Media Workshop

Posted by Philip Jong.
First posted on 20 June 2007. Last updated on 17 May 2013.
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Mike Morrison
Mike Morrison is the President of Digital Media Workshop, Inc., the developer of Prominence.
Mike Morrison
Mike Morrison

All images are courtesy of Digital Media Workshop, Inc. © 2007.

Founded in 1997, Digital Media Workshop has been, until now, a production studio that primarily specializes in audio and video media productions in design and animation. In April 2007, the company has announced, for the first time, that it will become an independent game developer and enter the competitive video game market. The first game to be in production will be called Prominence, a sci-fi point-and-click first-person computer adventure game. Transitioning from a media production company to a game development studio has been a difficult but rewarding experience for Digital Media Workshop. Despite facing such a challenge, the development team for Prominence is confident that it is on track to provide an immersing and unique gaming experience for avid adventure game fans. We are pleased to have an opportunity to interview Mike Morrison from Digital Media Workshop about the company and its latest project. In the interview, Morrison speaks of the company's transition to a game developer, the challenges faced by the design team in developing Prominence, and what adventure gamers can expect from this game.

Check out our exclusive gallery of previously unpublished concept art from Prominence!

Until now, Digital Media Workshop has been a production studio that specializes in audio and video production, design, and animation, rather than game development. Why has the company decided to branch out to become an independent game developer?

It's funny, actually. When I was 9 or 10, one of my older brothers was working for a computer company, and he would bring home Commodore PET computers to play games over the weekends. They had data cassette drives embedded right in the chassis and – when they actually worked – you could load games from the tape drive into the computer memory and play them. There were a whole bunch of games that we played on those machines, including one of the earliest text adventures. So my passion for gaming kicked in before anything else.

When I was a little older, my parents surprised me during the holidays with a Commodore 64. A friend of mine who lived around the corner had one too, and we'd type in the code for games from Compute or other magazines. We built sprites by sketching them on graph paper, and then added up the bit values and punched in the data. Good times.

The services offered by the studio were disciplines that came much later. I didn't develop a strong interest in music until my late teens. Graphic and web design came after that when I was in my mid-twenties. After that came 3D and videography.

In 2005, I was thinking about ways to promote the studio to a new market. The goal was to produce something that would showcase the studio's capabilities in music, sound effects, 3D visuals, and maybe video – essentially all the various services we offered, but wrapped up in a singular form. Of course, it would have been great to make some kind of story-based game, but didn't have millions of dollars or a huge team. So the idea was shelved initially.

For months, I went through a whole landscape of other ideas from interactive walkthroughs to short films. Then in November 2005, I stumbled across news about the demo for Nucleosys' game, Scratches, and thought, "Two guys are making an entire adventure game? Cool!"

Needless to say it was a revelation. Five minutes into the Scratches demo, everything changed. By combining a good horror/mystery story with current technology and an inspiring level of dedication, these two guys were developing a high-quality adventure game. It really was possible. That thought left me reeling for days.

So the whole thing is kind of backwards; it's almost like I've been working my whole life to come full circle to one of my earliest passions. And the further we get into development, the more I'm starting to feel that if Prominence succeeds, the studio might shift over completely into game development.

Given the high cost and risk of developing a game title, how has the company prepared itself to enter such a competitive market?

We're fortunate that the studio already has most of the equipment and tools required from the years we've spent on 3D, audio, video and other multimedia projects. The core development team is working on spec, so the majority of the development budget will be spent on the voice talent, some of the musicians, and outside artists. So in terms of cost, I think we're in pretty good shape.

As far as risk goes, we spent a year analyzing and researching the marketplace, then built a presentation based on the data we collected. We took the presentation around to our financial and business advisors to see if they thought we were crazy, because we thought we might be too close to be objective. To our surprise, everyone we spoke to told us that our research seemed right on target and that the plan looked very promising.

Of course, that's one of those things you can't really control. I'd like to believe that there will always be room in the marketplace for what we're striving to deliver – a compelling story wrapped up in a well-crafted game. But that's not necessarily the case. We could do everything "right" and still have a game that doesn't sell. Years ago, gamers didn't appreciate gems like The Last Express. Now it's considered a classic. More recently, games like Beyond Good & Evil, Psychonauts, and just about everything put out by Looking Glass were overlooked in the marketplace. It's very telling that some game magazines have a "Best Game No One Played" award in their annual "best of" round-ups.

But that's okay. We're very passionate about this venture. We've had a great time over the past decade working on all sorts of productions for our clients. The thought of using our collected experience to develop our own game ideas is such a powerful draw for us, it's hard to imagine anything more motivating. It's a journey that we're really enjoying.

Why is the decision made to develop an adventure game, especially given the current niche market demands for adventure games?

We decided early on to make a game that we would want to play. Here in the U.S., the average game player is 33 years old. That's our generation. We've been playing games for – well, a long time in my case – but for most of my generation, about 15 to 20 years if they were weaned on the likes of the Commodore 64 or Atari 800. I've played many types of games: shooters, RTSs, RPGs, MMOs, simulations…but I always come back to adventure games.

Adventure games are a unique genre. To me, they are incredibly compelling. They have the potential to be more cinematic than any film, more dramatic than any book, and more immersive than any other kind of game. It's the perfect platform to make a science-fiction game that isn't focused on shooting things.

What attracts you most about adventure games? What are your past favourite adventure game titles? Why?

Adventure games often have more interesting stories than most other kinds of games. There are exceptions, of course, but that's a big part of the attraction for me. Also, the problem-solving experiences – even in older adventure games – were far more rewarding to me than finding keycards and throwing switches. I remember using the Kennedy Assassination Tools in Spycraft: The Great Game and thinking that it was one of the coolest things I had ever done in a game. That's probably the moment I got hooked on adventures.

As far as my favorites? Hmm...Grim Fandago is probably at the top. So many things about that game are just brilliant. Film noir meets El Día de los Muertos? I would have loved to be in the room when they came up with that one. Curse of Monkey Island is high on the list, too. Probably more for execution and sheer entertainment than story. Both of those have tremendously good voice acting, music, and sound. I don't think LucasArts can make a game with bad audio.

I also liked the originality of The Neverhood, and the technological power behind Myst 4: Revelation.

More recently, I really enjoyed the stories of Still Life and Scratches, both of which left a good number of questions on the table.

I'd like to check out The Last Express at some point.

What is the inspiration behind Prominence?

Prominence was inspired by an amalgam of films and stories, really. I grew up when the first Star Wars trilogy was in movie theaters, when the original Star Trek was in syndicated re-runs, and The Next Generation was just coming out. As teenagers in the '80's, it seemed like there was a new science-fiction movie coming out every weekend. It was a great time to be a kid.

There have been a lot of games since then that have captured some aspects of sci-fi, but mostly they seem to focus on the weaponry and high-tech conflict. By comparison, it seems like there have been comparatively few science-fiction adventures lately. Nature abhors a vacuum, and we're glad to fill it.

How will Prominence be similar to or different from past sci-fi adventure games?

You know, I've played a fair amount of adventure games but surprisingly few science-fiction adventures. So in terms of comparison, it's hard for me to really compare it to previous games.

How long has the game been in development? How far along is the development at present?

Prominence has been in development for just over a year. I wrote the original story treatment in January 2006, it remained undeveloped until Kevin was able to join the project full-time in mid-2006. We went through many other game ideas, but ultimately came back to Prominence. For the most part, things have been progressing as scheduled and we're on target to release the game in 2008.

Pre-production was huge. We took the time and tried to do as many things right on the front end as we could. Legal steps were taken to protect the intellectual property. We built (and still maintain) a comprehensive design document. A complete story document was developed with all the plot points, puzzles and characters. We created maps of all the game environments and concept art for most of them as well. We put together a production schedule, compiled a budget, tried a bunch of different engines and developed a production pipeline. Features were added to the engine and tested.

Now we're in production and it's full steam ahead. Anyone who would like the latest updates about the game can sign up for our newsletter. It's on the main page of the Prominence web site ( http://www.prominencegame.com ).

What has been the most difficult part of the development process so far?

The most difficult part so far was finding the right engine for the game. We looked at a lot of engines, from adventure engines to FPS-style engines. We wanted something that would offer the core mechanics of a first person adventure, plus the ability to include GUI-based puzzles of our own design. But there didn't seem to be anything that fit the mold.

So we initially had to approach Prominence from the standpoint of having one engine for the game and another to create the types of puzzles that we wanted to include, because there wasn't a commercially available engine that could do both with the features we required. That was a scary notion because jumping between applications would have brought a whole other boatload of concerns to development.

I had contacted Agustín Cordes at Nucleosys about the SCream engine because Scratches looked, played and sounded great in the demo. But like most of the other adventure game engines, it was designed to only offer inventory-based puzzles.

As 2006 progressed, though, we got permission to add functionality to SCream and that really opened up the possibilities. Kevin's got the engine working now so that we can essentially plug our puzzle programming right into it. We don't have to leave the core application, which will help maintain the level of immersion that we're striving to provide.

How big is the development team (such as programmers, artists, etc.) for Prominence?

The project is helmed by me and Kevin McGrath. He's handling the programming and the script. I'm handling all the visuals and music/sounds. We share all design decisions. We've been friends for almost 20 years, so we've got a lot of shorthand.

My wife, Debbie, has been a huge help to us. She's got her own career, but somehow she's found time to help out with everything from the Prominence email newsletter to making sure we pay the AmEx bill on time.

Finally, we have a close-knit network of professional artists, musicians and actors that we've built up over the past decade while working on various client projects. Many of them had already expressed interest in the project before we even got rolling.

It is common practice now for independent game studios to outsource development for parts of the game. How much of Prominence is being developed in-house? What, if any, is being outsourced? How is the decision made on whether or not to outsource?

Since this is our first game, it's hard to predict exactly how much will be outsourced. The main factors in the decision to outsource will be related to deadlines and budget. If we're falling behind in a particular area of production, we can throw some money at the problem to help catch up. But there's only so much budget to work with, so we'll pick and choose our battles carefully.

Having said that, the content that I'd vote "Most Likely to Be Outsourced" would probably be some of the 3D modeling simply because there is so much of it that must be done, and I'm wearing a lot of hats. We've got a couple of really huge environments in Prominence that will require considerable attention to detail.

What are the major personal challenges you have faced so far as a game developer? What are the major challenges the company has faced so far as a game developing studio?

Time management, without a doubt. I've been able to tackle all manner of client projects on all sorts of deadlines in the past, but developing a project of this scope over such an extended period of time while still catering to our regular client base is quite a challenge, because I still have to make enough money to pay the bills.

It results in a lot of long work days and a lot of working weekends, but it's not as bad as it might sound. It's like having two dream jobs and wanting to devote enough time to both.

For the studio, it's taken a while to develop a solid, yet nearly transparent infrastructure. Kevin lives about eight hours away, but we need to be in constant contact. We worked our way through all sorts of different methods of working remotely, and ultimately found a nice balance of text chat, email, and VOIP. He also drives down regularly to spend time with us here in the studio, and we use that time to brainstorm and tackle some of the big tasks.

What are the major production tools (for graphics, programming, sounds, etc.) used to develop Prominence?

As mentioned earlier, we're using an updated version of the SCream engine -- the engine behind Nucleosys' game, Scratches. We've been performing our own modifications to enhance the engine with new features that will allow players to have an even more immersive experience.

Additional programming is being done in C and OpenGL. Scripting is done in LUA. For the visuals, it's LightWave 3D, Photoshop, After Effects, and Premiere. The audio pipeline is built around Cubase SX.

What kinds of gameplay and puzzles will be in Prominence? How many hours of gameplay are to be expected from the game?

Prominence features a first-person panoramic viewpoint. The player begins the game with a bit of an identity crisis, but I should probably point out that this is a temporary condition that is resolved by the second act, when they meet the central computer system that once oversaw the facility. We want the player's character to have a strong arc, but this isn't an "amnesia game".

Early gameplay will focus on exploration. The place is only lit with emergency lights, and much of the equipment is damaged or offline because of the lack of power. Eventually the player will have to start unraveling the mystery of what happened in order to… hmmm. I probably shouldn't say any more.

All the puzzles in Prominence are realistic (in a science-fiction sense) to the situation. There are some inventory puzzles, some puzzles that involve using computers and control panels, and some that are almost like mini-games.

As the game continues, the player can gain additional skills which can be used to overcome some of the challenges they face.

There are no jumping puzzles or time-limit puzzles. Our apologies to the first person platformer fans out there. (Yes, both of you.) There are, however, puzzles that may have more than one solution, and "bonus" puzzles that can lead to extra content that can only be seen by solving several puzzles in a particular fashion to free up certain items or access paths.

Every puzzle in the game serves to move the story forward, and leads to either new areas to explore, new details about the story, or both. There are no time-sinks. Based on the size of the game and the number of puzzles, we're anticipating about 15-20 hours of gameplay, but that doesn't include the replayability offered by the game's branching content.

Why is the decision made to use pre-rendered 2D as opposed to real-time 3D graphics and animations in Prominence? What are the benefits of adopting a 2D instead of a 3D approach?

One big advantage of using pre-rendered environments is that the player doesn't need to have a bleeding-edge PC to play the game. We don't expect people to upgrade their computer just to play Prominence.

The environments for the game are built in the computer, then shaders and textures are applied to all the objects in the scene, and it's lit with virtual lights. The camera is then positioned where the player will be standing and it renders out what the player can see. This allows us to take advantage of advanced lighting and shading models that wouldn't be possible in a real-time engine, and to use those techniques to deliver stylized, yet realistic environments.

For Prominence, we want the player to really feel like they are right there in this high-tech facility, and a first person viewpoint will be much more effective to provide that level of immersion. But we also want to offer high quality visuals, and the only way we can achieve that in any kind of reasonable development time is with pre-rendered environments. We're making a game that will feel comfortable to adventure gamers and be easy to pick up. Doing that will allow us to focus our efforts on story, puzzles and gameplay.

Is the game being developed only for the PC? Will the game take advantage of the Games for Windows platform for Microsoft Vista? If so, how?

Prominence will initially be released for Windows PCs. Mac and/or Linux versions are under consideration. We aren't making this game specifically for Vista, as our target audience may not have Vista machines.

How will the game be distributed? Who will be the publisher? Will there be a different publisher for North America and for elsewhere?

Our original plan was to take the game to 90% completion and then shop it to publishers for distribution in the U.S. and several international markets. However, we've already had some publisher inquiries, so the plan could change. We're certainly considering all possibilities at this stage. The success of ventures like Valve Software's Steam has opened up possibilities for online distribution. Telltale's deal with Gametap for the episodic Sam & Max games is an exciting development, too.

But we're also aware that broadband does not have 100% penetration in our key markets, and right now our estimated install footprint for Prominence is rapidly approaching 1GB. That's a scary size for DSL, let alone 56k modems.

By the time we're ready to hit the market, there may be many options. There is no doubt that the landscape of game distribution is changing before our eyes.

Admittedly, many small adventure game developers have had difficulties attracting attentions from mainstream press for their games. In turn, their games are often unfairly judged by the same press that has no interest in promoting the adventure genre. From the perspective of a game developer, what bias, if any, do you feel the current mainstream press has against small independent developers? What bias, if any, do you feel the current mainstream press has against the adventure genre?

It's a bit early in our marketing efforts for me to comment on that with any credible experience. I do think that some of that is a regional issue. Here in the U.S., shooters, strategy games and MMOs dominate the covers of most of the PC gaming magazines. Overseas, I understand that there is a bit more respect for the adventure genre.

As far as indie developers go, I think the mainstream press is becoming more aware of us and offering more coverage than they did in the past. And there are probably many factors that are contributing to that. The blogosphere is one. The advent of low-cost, off-the-shelf game engines is another. Events like the sold-out Independent Games Summit at GDC, and associations like the IGDA are yet another factor. I'm sure Long Tail economics factor in there too.

When we announced Prominence, one of the first things we heard back from press and gamers alike was how there hasn't been a science-fiction adventure game in a long time. We anticipated that there would be some adventure gamers out there who might enjoy a science fiction story, but the response to our initial announcement really blew us away.

That was wonderful because we decided very early in the process that we would build the type of game that we would want to play, and it was nice to learn that there's an audience out there that's interested in what we're doing.

What is the projected release date for Prominence?

2008. I can't say anything more specific at this time. At least, not without putting myself in harm's way with the art department.

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