Ryan Henson Creighton
|Ryan Henson Creighton is the founder of Untold Entertainment and the developer of Spellirium.|
All images are courtesy of Untold Entertainment © 2013.
Spellirium is a casual graphic adventure game currently in development by Canadian indie developer Untold Entertainment. The game combines elements of point-and-click adventure and word puzzle game to deliver a gaming experience suitable for all ages. The game tells the story of Brother Todd, a Runekeeper apprentice, who must master the magical power of the SpellCaster and seek out other members of his secret brotherhood in order to bring peace to his land inhabited by monsters and overlords and to overthrow an evil tyrant who is ruling the land.
It was hard to imagine an intrepid boutique game developer working with his young daughter to develop a kids' game during an indie game developer jam event that subsequently received worldwide media attention and charmed the entire gaming community at large. It was exactly what happened to Ryan Henson Creighton of Untold Entertainment with his daughter Cassie and a casual game that they created together called Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure at the 2011 Toronto Independent Game Jam.
For Creighton, however, his viral hit game is more than mere entertainment. Working at his small studio located in Toronto, Canada, he aims to create games suitable for all ages that both entertain and educate—with, according to the developer, an uncompromising pledge for honesty, communication, sanctity, and non-violence.
Creighton's latest game project, Spellirium, is intended to stay true to these goals. It is a point-and-click adventure game that also uses elements of a word puzzle game. Recently, he has launched an independent crowdsourcing campaign to help fund his game, in an attempt to bring his true gaming vision to life.
We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Ryan Henson Creighton about Spellirium. In the interview, Creighton speaks about his memories of playing adventure games, the development history of Spellirium, the efforts behind his independent fundraising campaign, and what can gamers expect from the game if they chose to fund his project.
Check out our gallery of previously unpublished concept and production art from Spellirium.
- What was the first adventure game you played? What were your favorite adventure games as a youth?
- Oh gosh! You guys are taking me waaay back. This is tough to answer, but I think the very first one might have been Ulysses and the Golden Fleece by Ken Williams on the Commodore 64. I remember being very attracted to the shot of the guard, because it was a full-screen computer picture of a cartoon character, and most C64 games had these tiny muddy or super-pixelated sprites that were difficult to make out.
(The title of that game messed with my mind, btw ... any fan of Greek mythology, as I soon became, knows that Ulysses is the Latin name of Odysseus, who had nothing to do with the golden fleece. That was Jason. But oh well.)
I didn't own the C64. My mom was a single parent, so I used to spend a lot of after school time at the twins' house. The twins, Matthew and Nathan, had a C64 with a MASSIVE tray of pirated games. I didn't know they were pirated at the time ... in fact, I remember being very surprised when years later, I saw C64 games for SALE, in the BOX and everything, and I learned they actually came with instructions. For me, then, a computer game was a mysterious thing on a 5.25" floppy with a hand-printed label and absolutely no hint about what it did or what it was. You'd just see this game name, and it was left to you to explore it. It was really a wonderful time of discovery for me.
Other adventure game titles I remember playing on the twins' C64 were The Dallas Quest, Windham Classics Below the Root, Swiss Family Robinson and The Wizard of Oz, Questprobe's The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, and Human Torch & the Thing, and The Wizard and the Princess. We weren't allowed to play Leather Goddesses of Phobos, because reasons. ;)
- Why is the game called Spellirium? What is your inspiration for this game?
- Spellirium. I admit - it's not the very best name. The game used to be called SpellCaster, which makes a lot more sense. We had been developing another game, and ran into a trademark dispute that threw the project into limbo and it still hasn't been launched. I had done a preliminary search on SpellCaster and it came up clean, but about a year later I looked again and I saw that there was another game called SpellCaster. Not only that, but the development team was made up of former lawyers! So I backed off.
When you're marketing a game, you should really use a name for which you can buy the commercial domain. I remember being at TOJam (the Toronto game jam), and brainstorming game names like crazy. Every single cool iteration of "WORD-whatever" or "Whatever-WORD" or "SPELL-Something" was taken. (Believe me! Try it yourself!)
By the end, I began brainstorming words that rhymed with "spell", but every logical variant was taken. So then I looked at words with the "spell" sound IN them, and I landed on "delirium". So Spellirium is a portmanteau of "spell" and "delirium".
When I searched "Spellirium" on Google, I saw this beautifully pristine blank white Results page - not a single, solitary hit. That was pretty special. So as goofy and as hard-to-pronounce as the game's name is, it's really satisfying knowing that when you search "Spellirium" on Google, every single result exists due to my efforts - my personal promotional handiwork.
So that's the game name. What about the game idea?
I read an article years ago by Tycho Brahe (AKA Jerry Holkins) from Penny Arcade. It was a review of the (then) new game Bookworm Adventures. In the review, Jerry described this absolutely incredible game. It was MORE than a word game - it had a STORY, and a QUEST, and you could spell SYNONYMS to craft ITEMS. It sounded absolutely incredible.
I bought Bookworm Adventures sight-unseen, based on Jerry's review. And it ... well, it fell short of his impossibly enthusiastic description. Lex the bookworm traveled across a map, on his way to get the Magic Whatever from Who Cares (I don't even remember the "story", if it existed at all). It was a pretty straightforward game: spell words to fight a monster. Then spell words to fight another monster. And ... repeat. Where were the titular "adventures"? That word means a lot to folks like us, and I think it pains us to see OUR word, which described a very specific genre, being used to describe Zelda games, for example.
Around the same time, I played a game called Puzzle Quest, which was a clever mash-up of an RPG and a match-3 game. While I enjoyed it, I felt it suffered from some of the same monotony that Bookworm Adventures had. I thought "what if I could build the game that Tycho was actually describing? And what if I could really vary the gameplay so that every puzzle was unique and interesting?" And lo, Spellirium was born. But it was to be a looong child-rearing process from that point onward! :)
- Your prior development experience has been in web and mobile games for broadcast television shows for kids. What are some of your previous game projects? How will Spellirium differ from these games?
- It's a tricky business to be in when you're a really passionate creator, and you care very deeply for the outcome of the game. Most of these games are made without any real care or concern for how the audience will receive them, which hurts. It hurts me in my SOUL. So the thinking goes in Canada: if you have a kids' show, you necessarily have to have a supporting website with games. Not GOOD games - not INTERESTING games - just ... games.
Many of those games are just under-funded attempts at cloning far more popular games. Why play Angry Birds, when you can play a FAR INFERIOR version of Angry Birds with some unheard-of Canadian kids' teevee show character in it? Bleh.
Spellirium is my one and only attempt at making a very, very good game - one that pleases and delights the people who play it, and one that doesn't skimp on quality or design. With the service projects, I often don't even get to come up with the game concept - I just build whatever the show producers or broadcasters ask me to build! Spellirium is my brainchild from the bottom up. And - if I may say - I've got quite a brain!
I will say that there is one service project that went very very well, because we had near-complete creative control. It's a graphic adventure game called Jinx: Escape from Area Fitty-Two. It's the third game in a series (the first two were developed by the extremely talented Michael Lalonde), and it's one of the funniest things I've ever written. If you want to get a sense of the humour in Spellirium, jive Jinx 3 a play.
- Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure was a kids' casual game which you created with the help of your then 5-year-old daughter Cassandra (Cassie) at the Toronto Independent Game Jam (TOJam) back in 2011. How had that experience influenced you as a game developer and as a parent?
- I've tried to be really careful with Cassie's exposure. I don't want to be a Soccer Mom or anything, so you'll notice that while I use the picture of us together at TOJam quite a bit, I'm not trolling poor Cassie out in the limelight all the time. One of Untold Entertainment's core tenets is the belief in the sanctity of childhood, and I want to make sure her development stays reasonably protected and as "normal" as possible.
That said, when certain opportunities arise, I just can't pass them up. My first-ever experience on stage was playing the lion in a first-grade production of The Little Engine that Could. Cassie's first-ever experience on stage was giving a TEDx talk to 2000 people. That ... is awesome.
As I said in that TED talk, I want Cassie (and all kids!) to be raised as creators, and not consumers. I realized, though, that it's very difficult to want to create video games when you haven't had many experiences playing video games. So we've eased into a period now where I'm introducing Cassie to different games, and finding out what she enjoys. (In case you're wondering, she's big on Animal Crossing, Minecraft, and an XBLA game called A World of Keflings.)
- Spellirium can be described as a mixture of traditional point-and-click adventure game and casual word puzzle game like Boggle, TextTwist, and Jumbline. What are the benefits of combining these different mechanics in Spellirium? What is missing in the current playable alpha build of Spellirium? What do you plan to add to this build before the game is released?
- When Double Fine launched such a successful Kickstarter campaign, there was a lot of discussion around graphic adventure games. It was a real dissection of the genre: why it dropped in popularity, why it's so great, and the aspects of it that players didn't enjoy. One issue that kept coming up was replayability. Once you're through an adventure game, there tends to be very little reason to play it again (unless you're a young child. The non-replayability "weakness" of the genre is FANTASTIC for children, who learn by repetition). Another flaw is the aspect of getting hopelessly stuck in a game.
Some graphic adventure games can feel really constricting, like you're on rails. When you incorporate something like a word puzzle, you introduce a lot more variation and ... play ... into the game. The player feels like he or she has much more agency into what's going on.
We solve the "stuck" problem by structuring the game so that you can ALWAYS proceed. This was a really tough design decision to make, especially coming from a school of thought in game development where players really must to EARN their way through the story, or they're "not worthy" of experiencing it. As comedian Dara O'Briain puts it,
"You cannot be bad at watching a movie. You cannot be bad at listening to an album. But you CAN be bad at playing a video game, and the video game will punish you and deny you access to the rest of [it]. You've never read a book, and three chapters in, the book has gone 'What are the major themes of the book so far?'"
I was convinced by a statement made by a woman at the Game Developers' Conference one year. She was an advocate for female players, and she gave her followers this advice: "If you buy a game, and you can't access all of the content on the disc, go back to the store and ask for your money back." That was about six years ago, and it was a radical concept to me at the time. But the more we slave away at Spellirium's story and the more love we pour into it, the more I think "Hey - I WANT as many players as possible to experience this entire story." So the rewards are there for players who achieve, but every player will be able to make it through Spellirium, regardless of their vocabulary strength!
The idea to combine a word game with a graphic adventure came from those original graphic adventure games I mentioned earlier. We used to type our commands into a parser when we played these games. Literate, educated, and intelligent players used to play these games. I thought it was a natural fit.
What's missing from the alpha is the third act, and all sound - effects, music, and the all-important voice-over. The other incomplete aspects include balance, polish and playtesting. It's a very difficult game to tune to the disparate abilities of a wide player base.
We'd like to add the sound and Act III, of course. I would also like to see a few more monsters and challenges in the game. Once the areas are all set in stone, I will commission an artist to draw a BEAUTIFUL map for the game. And if I could have the world in my pocket, I would build in a multiplayer hook for marathon mode, but I don't think we'll see that happen.
- What is the story in Spellirium? How important is the story going to be in the game?
- Story is crucial to Spellirium, as it is with any adventure game. The game IS the story!
Spellirium is set in the future, when civilization has suffered a dramatic worldwide calamity: everything has been buried beneath a mile of earth. The survivors can mine "the Heap" for things they need, but a lack of gas and electricity leads them to build their homes and hovels from a hodge podge of relics from the past. They've essentially been busted back to the Dark Ages, with non-functioning cars and computers.
In this world, reading and writing have been outlawed by a shadowy figure named Lord Steve. If anyone digs up findage with the "forbidden runes" (writing) on it, he is forcibly taken from his bed at night. The findage is confiscated, and the offender is never seen or heard from again.
You play Brother Todd, an apprentice Runekeeper. The Runekeepers are four old men who pose as harmless tailors, but who maintain a secret underground library full of illicit findage with writing on it. When Todd is left to guard the library and one of the Runekeepers turns up dead, he sets off on a quest to find the others with the power of a strange device that impacts reality when he uses it to spell words. Todd is joined by a shaggy blue monster, a tough-as-nails hunter, and an insufferable bard.
The game plays out in three acts with a prologue.
- In recent years, many indie developers have successfully used crowdsourcing campaigns to raise funds to develop their games. Why do you choose not to leverage these resources, such as Kickstarter, to fund your own game?
- I may yet launch a Kickstarter campaign, because it's very difficult to drive the requisite volume of traffic to my own site. I decided to go it alone for a number of reasons:
- Kickstarter is not available to Canadians, so there are a number of hoops to jump through to launch a campaign.
- the budget for Spellirium is elastic. I've seen the target total work against a campaign, so we're happy to have an amount of support that we can raise.
- with an independent campaign, more of the money goes to the developer, instead of to Kickstarter and Amazon Payments.
- an independent campaign is not an all-or-nothing proposition. With Kickstarter, you spend a month building a campaign and a month promoting it. We have a project in full development; we can't risk two months of work on a campaign that may yield zero dollars in support!
- Kickstarter recently launched a manifesto that included the important point that "Kickstarter is not a store". It's a place for getting ideas off the ground. This idea is already of the ground and in mid-flight, and the flight crew is passing out little packs of honey-roasted peanuts to the passengers. We're just asking for your continued support so that the plane doesn't take a nosedive in a field somewhere and kill everyone on board.
- Why do you choose not to set an explicit monetary goal for your fundraising campaign for Spellirium? What is the minimum amount in funding which you need to raise for you to consider your campaign a success? By soliciting public support to fund your project, how worry are you that you will subject yourself openly to criticisms by the community if the game is delayed or fails to meet expectation?
- Kickstarter could do a much better job at explaining to people how their own site works. I think people look at a campaign and think "gee, that sure is cool ... but there's NO WAY they're going to get that much money, so I won't back it", or "I'll wait and see if other people support it." People don't seem to realize that they're not risking any money by supporting something they like - money only gets withdrawn if the project succeeds. And they also don't seem to piece together that if they wait for everyone else to back it, the thing likely won't get backed!
Add to this the age-old problem that people don't know what games cost to make. At the time of writing, we've raise just over $5k. How much does it cost to add voiceover to a game like Spellirium? When done professionally, it's in the neighbourhood of $20k. That's in addition to the animation and artwork we need to commission for the third act, to say nothing of sound effects and music. So if I were to say "Spellirium needs $50k to finish", people might be bowled over and say WHOA! That's a LOT of dough! But the fact is that games cost money to make. And compared to a film - I mean, the amount of entertainment value you get from a film vs a game, measured in sheer hours of enjoyment - games are a much better value.
Whenever you put yourself out in front of the public, you have to put your armour on. It's thick-skin time. If the project is delayed, it'll still ship much faster than, say, a Kickstarter project that doesn't even exist yet! I encourage anyone who is interested in Spellirium, but not ready to commit, to watch our upcoming Spellirium Minute videos, and to talk to our Day One backers about the game. Many of our backers have already said that even at this alpha stage, they've easily seen $15 worth of value from playing Spellirium. As the creator, that feels great!
- Why has Spellirium been in protracted development for 5 years, despite having received funding from a government agency? What parts of the game's development, if any, are you currently outsourcing or planning to outsource pending additional funds from the campaign?
- The first two years of Spellirium's lifetime were simply spent trying to procure government funding. The remaining three were spent reeling from the effects of government funding!
I'm kidding. ... a little.
We ran into a situation with that initial grant where due to an interpretation of their rules, we scrambled to build a development team in six short weeks, which was the first major misstep the project suffered. Add to that my inexperience as a manager, creative difference, and skin-of-your-teeth budgeting that left absolutely no room for error, and we wound up in a bad spot: the funding was spent (legitimately, on employees and contractors), the game was not finished, and we were still under contract to deliver the game. We ran the risk of having to repay the government grant, with a completely tapped-out bank account.
Over the years, we slowly chipped away at the game, hiring contractors to work on bits and pieces as the government extended and re-extended and (exasperatedly) re-re-extended our deadline. After many sacrifices and a LOT of crunch time from Yours Truly, we got Spellirium to the point where the funding agency signed off on it and we were "free". But the game wasn't up to my expectations for release. Enter the "kickender" campaign.
I can handle the remaining programming for Spellirium. I am going to commission the music, sound effects and vo from capable folks in that realm. I am considering voicing the main character myself, to save money on casting and retakes. I'm looking for animators to storyboard and build the Act III cutscenes. I'm also seeking talented scene painters to cover off the last few unpainted backgrounds in the game. I desperately want to talk to accomplished UI/UX designers about the game. Finally, I'm working with some people on the playtesting strategy to ensure that Spellirium launches bug-free.
- What is the target audience for Spelirium? How challenging will the game be for players whose native language is not English? How easy can the game be localized to other languages?
- The target audience question is tough. This game exists at the intersection of word puzzle and adventure games. Who enjoys those two things? I could be wrong, but I THINK it's people about five years older than me, who enjoyed the transition from text parser adventures to single-screen "graphic" text adventures back in the heyday. Where do those people hang out? ON BBS's? I don't know yet. But I hope I find them.
Many people have suggested that Spellirium is a great kids' game, but the truth is that generally speaking, kids don't enjoy word games. Scrabble, Boggle, Words with Friends ... these are all games enjoyed by adults, not kids.
But I think if you're a regular reader at this site, and if you got a little tingle in your spine when I mentioned The Wizard and the Princess or The Dallas Quest, AND you've read the entire interview down to this paragraph .... I think YOU, being a literate person and an adventure fan, will enjoy Spellirium.
If English is not your mother tongue, you may still enjoy the game, but it really depends on how good your English is! We've been careful to design the game so that it can theoretically be translated into different languages later. But for this version, a firm grasp of the English language is definitely required.
- On your website, you proclaim that there are 5 guiding principles to ensure that your audience will have a "fantastically" fun experience that includes an "uncompromising honesty" and the "use of entertainment to improve, rather than degrade, the human condition". How will you stay true to these principles in Spellirium?
- Well, throughout this interview, I haven't made any promises I can't keep. That's why I said in the campaign video that Spellirium will be finished "when it's finished". I don't want to commit to a date that I can't meet, and I don't want to launch a game on a promised date when it's not ready.
As for the human condition, I have to talk about a few aspects of the game that don't become clear until the fabled third act, which we're currently developing. Spellirium is ultimately about two things: privilege and individualism. It's a reaction against a number of tired video game tropes that I just can't stand any longer - namely, that if there's a "Chosen One" in the story, it always happens to be YOU, the player. Why does every video game have to be world-saving fantasy fulfillment? Are we all that insecure that we need video games to stroke our egos and tell us how amazing we are (for incessantly pushing buttons and staring at a flickering screen)? Wouldn't it be refreshing to play a game where your character is actually a SUPPORT character - fifth business in the story of a figure and a purpose far larger and more important than the Cult of You?
I won't give anything else away! But those are some of the themes we're exploring with Spellirium.
- When is the expected release date for Spellirium? On what platform will Spellirium be released first? What plans, if any, are there to release Spellirium on other platforms?
- If we were to raise $50k, I see Spellirium launching in 3-4 months. The less money we raise, the longer the release date gets pushed out. Believe me, Spellirium WILL launch. We've come too far, and the game is too much fun NOT to launch. The support we raise through the pre-order campaign lets us launch it better ... stronger ... faster. (And all for UNDER six million dollars - what a deal!)
Dig word games? Dig adventure games? Your dream game has arrived. Pre-order Spellirium, and help us finish this grand game experiment with flying colours!