Step Creative Group
First posted on 18 July 2008. Last updated on 30 June 2009.
|Ilya Chudakov is the lead game designer of Inhabited Island: The Earthling at Step Creative Group.|
|A team photo taken in 2005 of Step Creative Group marks a highpoint in the company's history.|
All images are courtesy of Anastasia Savchenko, Akella © 2008.
About the interviewee
Ilya Chudakov began his career as a game developer when he was hired by Yuri Matveev to join Step Creative Group back in 2005. He had long dreamt of a career in the gaming industry, ever since he was a youth when he began making homemade AD&D like board games on his own to play. While there, he worked on both Star Heritage and Inhabited Island. He left Step Creative Group in 2007 and founded his own software company, Prosper The Bonaventure, to develop educational software for students for learning English.
For more information, visit Prosper The Bonaventure.
Step Creative Group is a small Russian game developer company that has experienced a stop and start introduction into the gaming industry. Based in Moscow, Step Creative Group first emerged in 1995 with the release of Star Heritage, an adventure game for the now defunct ZX-Spectrum. The demise of the ZX-Spectrum platform, to the advent of the modern PC platform, saw the company shut down and close its doors.
In 2003, Step Creative Group was reopened by Yuri Matveev. The company produced a remake of Star Heritage for the PC (Star Heritage 1: The Black Cobra) that became an instant hit. In 2007, the developer released another adventure game in Russian for the PC called Inhabited Island: The Earthling. It was directly based on the novel Prisoner of Power by renowned Russian authors the Strugatsky brothers. The game proved to be so popular in Russia that the company immediately embarked on the task of re-releasing the game in English worldwide.
The English language version of Inhabited Island: The Earthling is to be published by Russian game publisher Akella. In March 2008, Step Creative Group has announced that it has again temporarily ceased operation. However, Akella has confirmed that it remains committed to finish development of this project.
We are pleased to have the opportunity to interview Ilya Chudakov, lead game designer at Step Creative Group, about the English release of Inhabited Island: The Earthling. In the interview, Chudakov relates to us on the turbulent history of the company, how the game compares to the book on which it is based, and the many production problems involved in completing such a large project.
- Inhabited Island: The Earthling is adapted from the novel Prisoner of Power by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. How close does the novel compare with the storyline in the game? Are all major characters common to both? Will any new character be created solely for the game?
- I would like to start answering this question with a short remark. The novel "Prisoners of Power" is known in Russia mostly under its different name of "Inhabited Island". In fact, this explains the game title that we have chosen for our local market.
From the very beginning, the biggest idea of our product was retelling the original story. Strugatsky brothers mean really A LOT for the Russian reading community. I even would not be afraid to say that they are sacred for our readers. Any attempt to change the original storyline would cause a huge storm of critique from innumerable book-lovers. It is like trying to change the original plot of the book, "The Hobbit," by J.R. Tolkien; when you are making a video-game called "The Hobbit," destined to the auditory of Tolkien fans.
We did not want any changes in the original storyline and I think we have achieved our aim. All major characters of the book are present in the game, and along with that, there are no extra characters added.
Actually we have done more than a mere reflection of the book's storyline. We tried to recreate the general atmosphere of the novel in our game. We were very careful about characters appearance, their costumes, environment where they live, etc. Fortunately, Strugatsky brothers give a very detailed description of people, buildings, technical equipment and nature in their story. I supplied the artists with short pieces of the original text and they drew concept images based on these materials. To top it off, we have embedded triggered events into the game process. The player is able to hear the sound of unchanged Strugatsky words. These events are triggered when a player's progress matches with the book's situation. The effect is very powerful and it touches the player deeply.
- Prisoner of Power was originally written in Russian in 1971 and translated to English in 1977. Similarly, Inhabited Island: The Earthling was already released in Russian language before work began on the English language translation. How difficult had been the translation and localization process?
- In my opinion the localization process was no more than technical chores. We had envisaged that we would have to localize this product in the future and we were ready for it. We had some tools for text import / export; we knew every localizable texture, and we made raw translation of all in-game texts from Russian to English.
No, it was not difficult at all. It just took us some time and patience.
- It is no secret that the Strugatsky brothers are political satirists in their writings and that their novel is a thinly veiled satire of the Soviet regime. To what extent does the game delve into the political issues raised by the novel?
- Well, primarily we were considering "Inhabited Island" as a good adventurous story, which suits greatly our purposes. We were not keen on the political issues implicated in the book. You know, the life has dramatically changed in Russia since Soviet Union times. I am afraid that modern generations will not get Strugatsky concerns which they tell us about in their book.
Interestingly, this book does not contain the political substance only. It raises a lot of questions on social aspects as well. Poor ecology, the spread of violence, racism, stratification of the society, dissolution of morals and lots more – it is all shown in the book. I think that today we got much closer to these problems than it was in the time of the Soviet Union.
As for the game, since we were reflecting the book, we have depicted a lot of social issues in the constructed world. But, of course, they were shown indirectly and it is up to the player whether to notice them or not.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of adapting materials from previously published fictional works in games?
- Let me start from advantages. The first and the most evident advantage is the popularity of the title. When a lot of people have heard of the printed fictional work then there are better chances to sell the game that exploits the same title. Unfortunately, very often a good game with an unknown title and theme, brings less profit than a poor game with some famous work in its basement.
The second advantage is that you can use an already-made storyline, setting, characters, etc. It is definitely easier than to create your own things. You do not have to spend a lot of time pondering over the new something, its appearance, principles of existence, attitude to our world, etc.
But along with advantages there are some disadvantages of using previously published works. For example, a widely known predecessor of your game can limit your freedom. You cannot do things which violate the ideas of the basement work. You cannot neglect some inconvenient moments in the game if they were important in the published work.
In "Inhabited Island: The Earthling" we encountered a serious problem when we were visualizing Strugatsky's world. In the book most of the environment described as some sad gloomy locations without much bright color in it. It is interesting to read about it, but when our artists tried to capture the authors' words in the image, the result was really boring. A lot of gray and brown palette matches the original text, but was terrible for the player's perception. The game was not look like an entertainment. We have even received a remark from our producers. They told us: "The player must observe the post apocalyptic world and weep with tender emotions". I must confess, despite all our efforts, we were unable to achieve this. The released game looked better than it was in the beginning, but still not bright enough.
- Aside from Inhabited Island: The Earthling, other games have also been adapted from the Strugatsky brothers' novel—Galactic Assault: Prisoner of Power by Wargaming and Inhabited Island: Prisoner of Power by Orion. What is different about Step Creative Group' adaptation of Prisoner of Power as compared to the other releases?
- These two games made by other studious were of different genres, the strategy and the first-person shooter, while our game was an adventure. Unlike "Inhabited Island: The Earthling" they did not cover the whole Strugatsky story, but based on some ideas of the book or on certain scenes from it. I consider these games as continuations or extensions of the original story while our game - its retelling. Sometimes I think that if it was not for the sign "Inhabited Island" on the packages of these two games, we would never identify them as something related to Strugatsky's work.
- What game engine is used to render the graphics in Inhabited Island: The Earthling? Is the same engine used in the English language version as in the Russian language version? What can gamers expect from the visuals in the game?
- Well, programmers would answer this question better than me but I will try. In the "Inhabited Island: The Earthling" we used the same engine as was used in the previous Step Creative Group's game named "Star Heritage". This engine had been developed inside the company for several years and had been changed gradually. On the "Inhabited Island" project, the engine got the opportunity to show panoramic views of locations.
Although it still did not let you run across the scene. You could travel between locations with discrete jumps. It looked very similar to the game "The Myst".
As for special effects, the engine could play: fire, smoke, sparks, clouds, and many other things but I cannot explain you the technology that was used to create such glamour. I just lack of the necessary knowledge.
The localization of "Inhabited Island" did not change its engine. English and Russian versions produce the same picture and visual effects.
- The game is played over a number of discrete chapters and fixed locations. How many chapters and locations constitute the entire game?
- It has already been half a year since the game was released. I do not remember the accurate numbers, but approximately the game counts 8 chapters and about 90 locations. We were planning to have 10 chapters and more locations but then we had to cut out some of the chapters and replace them with video clips. It was very painful to abandon these chapters, but the limitations of budget, deadlines and other problems in the company, forced us to take these measures. Maybe it saved the life of the whole project.
- The game looks very polished. How many people are involved in the original development team? How many people are involved additionally in the English language translation? How long has the English translation been in development?
- I hate saying this but there are lots of defects and incomplete moments in the game. In fact it is far from being polished. We might have done the game much better if we did not have all of those troubles during the development. But never mind...
Originally there were about 6 men appointed on this project. The maximal size the team reached was about 10 specialists. In the end, the developing team shrunk to 1-2 men, not including the head of the company. Unfortunately, we had a huge rotation of people on that project which could not be good for the quality of the final product.
- In Inhabited Island: The Earthling, the player navigates each screen from a fixed center point with an invisible fish-eye lens capable of a full 360 degree panorama. How do the navigational controls work in this game?
- There are two modes of work for the mouse pointer (cursor). These modes are switched by the right-mouse-button click. At the first mode, the mouse pointer is pinned to the center of the screen. When you displace the mouse the camera rotates. Thus you can observe the whole panorama. In the second mode, the mouse pointer travels freely across the screen but does not rotate the camera. Instead, you are able to interact with the user interface; working with the inventory, for instance. In both modes, whether the cursor is pinned or otherwise, it changes its appearance when intersecting with some active objects on the screen. It can be an item, an exit zone, or a character. If you press the left-mouse-button when the cursor intersects with an exit zone you go to another location. It is very convenient and you get used to it very quickly.
- Compared with the graphics in Galactic Assault: Prisoner of Power and Inhabited Island: Prisoner of Power, the graphics in Inhabited Island: The Earthling are much more realistic. What is the creative process in deciding on the graphical look for this game?
- I will try to describe how it looked like. At first, as a game designer, I made a scheme of locations where we could organize panoramic views. Then I searched for the description of the scene in Strugatsky's book. Sometimes I found a lot of information, but sometimes I had to construct the environment from pieces. Simultaneously I tried to design a location that would not only reflect the book, but would also be suitable for placing quest tasks on it. Then with all the stuff, I went to the concept-artists and discussed with them the scene. I do not want to say that I was setting a task for them. It is no use to set the task for artists because they can understand the looks of the scene better than a game-designer. I just made sure that they had read the original Strugatsky's description of the place and that they had known about all of the conditions for the location. After that, the concept-artists produced several images of the scene, out of which the whole team selected the best. As soon as the concept image was approved, it was time for the 3D modelers. With their skilled hands, concepts became real graphics in the game. Sometimes we made corrections in 3D-scenes after they had been finished.
- For gamers who may not be familiar with the developer's name, what is the history of Step Creative Group as a company? How many people are employed there now? How many games have the company developed previously? How many of these games have been translated to English?
- Step Creative Group first showed up with its ZX-Spectrum project "Star Heritage" in 1995. It was a good game for its time and many people loved it. That game was based on other famous game's universe "Elite". Unluckily for Step Games, year 1995 was the sunset of the ZX-Spectrum era and the rise of the new one, the PC era. With the disappearing of ZX-Spectrums, Step Creative Group also ended its existence. It was reopened in 2003 by Yuri Matveev, one of the authors of the first "Star Heritage" for ZX-Spectrum. In 2005 Yuri Matveev and his team made the remake of "Star Heritage". This time it was done for PC. It turned out to be a good quest from good old times. Very little has changed in it, save the graphics and sound which became more vivid and powerful. In 2007 Step Creative Group released its last project "Inhabited Island: The Earthling". Then it was closed because of the financial problems.
Besides "Star Heritage" and "Inhabited Island" Step Creative Group is also known by the following projects:
- mix of arcade and logic "Deactivation",
- adventure quest "Alice" based on the books by famous Russian children fiction writer Kir Bulychev,
- adventure quest series "Dikanka" based on the stories of N.V. Gogol, the world known writer.
You can learn more about Step Creative Group if you visit its official website at http://www.stepgames.ru.
- To what extent is the publisher Akella involved in the English translation and production of Inhabited Island: The Earthling? What are the challenges of marketing a Russian made game to an English game market?
- To tell you the truth I do not work in Akella, so I do not know if they take part in the game localization. But what I know for sure is that we have collected all the materials to be localized, and made a raw translation to English of all in-game texts, when I was working in Step Creative Group as a game designer.
- Unavoidably, games are often found to have glitches that require patching after they are first released. Will there be an English language support site set up online for Inhabited Island: The Earthling? How will support be provided to English gamers?
- I think English gamers will have their opportunity to visit some website in English language where they can download the necessary patches and other add-ons. It is usually done this way.
For example, Step Creative Group already released the patch for the Russian version of "Inhabited Island: The Earthling" and placed it on its site. This is a bilingual site. You can read it either in Russian or in English. If there are any patches for the English version, I suppose you can find them there, or if not there, then at one of Akella's sites.
- Given that the story for the game is basically Russian, do you envisage wide acceptance among English gamers on the fact of the content of the game (leaving out politics) and not be hindered by a continuing Cold War between Russia and United States? Why?
- If you leave out politics, which was already done in the game, then the story will not be basically Russian. It could be applied to any country, I think. There is nothing that could frighten off gamers outside of Russia. It's a good adventure story with an exciting storyline full of interesting riddles. Everybody likes adventures!
- Are there more plans from Akella to adapt other Russian adventure games to English? If so, what?
- Well, Akella is a big publisher and game producer in Russia. I am sure that "Inhabited Island: The Earthling" is neither their first project nor the last one which is being localized to English.
But again you had better ask this question Akella directly. I do not work there.