Hero-U Project Update #46: Adding A Dimension to Hero-U

Let’s Go To the Movies

I shared our new teaser trailer video to backers last month, and our playable demo last week. Now it’s time to share the video with the world. Please tell all your friends to check out the trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRKycVbHce4 and spread the word.


The First Dimension – Story

Graphic adventure games are unique, living at the intersection of stories, animated films, puzzles, and interaction. Game producers have always argued about the best ways to design them. Some developers start with the challenges, some with the graphics, and some with words.

For Lori and me, every game begins with a story. We choose a setting, populate it with interesting characters, and ask, “What is life like for them? What are their problems, and how can the player help solve them?” Once we know the story, we can work with our team to create images and code that enhance the story.

The key word there is “work”. Here we have our story at the heart of a game, but 90% of the work goes into the presentation. Brian Moriarty, when he moved from creating text adventures for Infocom to the graphic adventure LOOM at LucasArts, probably said it best: “The problem with graphic adventure games is that you can’t do anything that you can’t show, and you can’t afford to show anything!”

Let’s call our story the “first dimension” of a graphic adventure game.  It’s critical, but not enough by itself.

The Castle on the RocksThe Castle on the Rocks

The Second Dimension – Graphics and Animation

One important lesson we learned from Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire, and that was “avoid 3D”. Dragon Fire was the only game on which our team went way over schedule and budget. Three years of development on two different graphics engines and tons of 3D art were the main culprits.

Hero-U was supposed to be a simpler game with a simpler artstyle than Dragon Fire. So we reached out for artists experienced with traditional 2D cell animation. All of the Sierra artists in the early 90’s were adept at that, and the programmers just dropped the animations right into the game, so how hard could it be with modern tools and faster computers?

It seems we forgot about the part where Sierra put millions of dollars into developing the tools and engine for making that 2D art so easy. Unity3D has “3D” in their name for a reason; they are only now releasing a version designed to help develop 2D games.

Here’s some of what it takes to get a single 2D character to walk:

  • Design the character and draw a minimum of five angles (forward, back, back left, left, and front left). The last three can be mirrored, but only if the character is completely symmetrical. The artist needs to draw an asymmetrical character in all eight directions.
  • Draw a series of animation “cells” showing the character walking one step at a time in each direction. That’s how we did it at Sierra, and it was way easier when the artist only had 16 colors to adjust.
  • Alternatively, cut the character up into pieces representing each major bone and joint, then animate the pieces moving like a puppet. (This is how Shawn and the other characters are animated in the Demo.)
  • Convert the resulting animations into a format that can be imported into and used in Unity3D.
  • Write a bunch of functions that treat the 2D images as a 3D object. When the character walks somewhere – such as when the player clicks on an object – he needs to find a path to the object and move one step at a time, “cycling” the animation with each step.
  • Meanwhile, the code has to check if the player has changed facing along the way, and dynamically go through the in-between before switching to the middle of a different animation sequence. When done poorly, this will cause the character to “slide” across the screen or make jerky movements. It takes a lot of tweaking of both the art and programming to move him smoothly.

That’s all hard and time-consuming. Worse, the 2D animation in the demo just isn’t good enough for our game.

An Explo-ShawnAn Explo-Shawn

Into the Third Dimension – 3D Characters

That’s when Lori and I realized that not all of the 1998 rules still apply in 2013. Today 2D animation is harder than 3D. All experienced animators know how to work with 3D tools and Unity3D is optimized to use them. They take less time to animate, not more, and also less money. The question was whether we had tied our fates to the wrong technology for too long, and whether we had any choice.

Then fate intervened. We had volunteered to give a talk at the IGDA Summit in San Francisco. Sharing the same hotel was Casual Connect, a conference with a huge exhibit area. That’s where we encountered the Concept Art House (CAH) table. Lori and I were both very impressed by their outstanding game art portfolio.

As it turns out, both James Zhang and Daniel Roh of CAH are Quest for Glory fans, and they promised they could find a way to help us. “Small budget? No problem.”

We gave them a test character to model, and we were blown away – They gave us 3D art that looked even better than the 2D drawings they started from. Just as importantly, the 3D character worked perfectly in Unity.

CAH Gives Shawn a Case of the PolygonsCAH Gives Shawn a Case of the Polygons

We have now signed a deal with Concept Art House for them to model and animate all of our characters and monsters in 3D for a reasonable price and on a reasonable schedule. Actually, the schedule is better than reasonable – Every day we get new models and textures from CAH, and they are all outstanding.

Our team artists continue to focus on the game backgrounds, objects, interface, yearbook, and the many other art needs of the game. We’re incredibly excited about the new partnership and the amazing character art we will be adding to Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption.

Shawn Has Depth of Character!Shawn Has Depth of Character!

To the Fourth Dimension and Beyond!

We feel as though we’ve taken one small step into the 21st Century with our new character animation. Although we have an enormous amount of work to do on the game, we are feeling very good about our new development processes.

It won’t be fast; it certainly won’t be easy. But we’re getting it done, and the game will be much better with the new animation and the complex game behavior we are able to build into Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption.

Think of it as the fourth dimension of our graphic adventure.

Shawn in 3DShawn in 3D

Kickstarter Quickies

The projects I mentioned in the previous backer-only post are in their final days.  Here are two more interesting games mentioned by our backers:

Read Only Memories: A New Cyberpunk Adventure Game (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/gaymercon/read-only-memories-a-tribute-to-90s-adventure-game/) is a retro-style Cyberpunk adventure game.  It appears to use 16-color graphics – quite a challenge.

The Mandate (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1964463742/the-mandate) is a slick-looking science fiction RPG.  It also features adventure aspects, space battles, and exploration, so it looks like a cross between an RPG and a 4X game.