The Hero-U team wishes all of our backers, friends, and fans a very merry Christmas, a happy new year, and a fabulous Winter.
We hope you’re all having a wonderful holiday season leading into a fantastic 2016. Lori and I always have fun this time of year trimming the tree, singing carols, welcoming guests, feasting, and even doing a little shopping.
One of our stretch goals in this year’s Kickstarter was “more and improved music and sound effects”. As our Holiday gift for all of you, here is a video of the Budapest Scoring Orchestra doing a live performance of the Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption theme (composed and arranged for orchestra by Ryan Grogan). We’re very excited to have live orchestral music in the game.
More Presents Underneath the Internet Tree
We’ve made great progress in resolving unanswered BackerKit surveys. I spent most of last week going from 800 unanswered surveys to fewer than 100. As a result, we will soon start uploading digital backer rewards to your personal BackerKit pages. These will include:
Hero-U screensaver / wallpaper for all backers
Fantasy travel posters for backers who ordered them
Fulfilling Quest for Glory keys on gog.com is proving challenging because the way we set up our BackerKit does not distinguish between new orders and the ones we’ve already fulfilled. Chris and I are working to resolve this and email the new keys as soon as we can.
As for those last 100 backers, please respond quickly if you get an email from Chris Fong, Hero-U Support, or myself so that we can make sure you get the rewards you want. If you have any questions or problems, you can use the BackerKit help button or send email to us at support (at) hero-u (dot) com. Chris and I both read support requests and handle them as quickly as possible.
If you’re looking for last-minute presents, Lori has designed some Hero-U Christmas ornaments and other fun gifts that you can order on our Cafe Press page - http://www.cafepress.com/herouniversitystore. If you’re like us and keep the house decorated half the year, there’s still plenty of time to order something nice!
Team Changes and Challenges
Of course, as Ebenezer Scrooge pointed out, the Christmas season also tends to be a bad time for productivity. We’ve had distractions ranging from helping my mother recover from knee surgery to catching the obligatory Thanksgiving colds to doing Christmas things. In fact, life has been so busy, we haven’t seen The Force Awakens yet, potentially causing serious damage to our nerd cred.
Last week we had the pleasure of entertaining super-backer Katherine Owen. She was in a bad car accident several years ago that led to her becoming active in our How to Be a Hero and School for Heroes web sites. We’re happy to say that after many very rough years, Katherine is doing much better. She enjoyed visiting our rustic “lived in” home and watching me start a fire in the fireplace to take off some of the mountain chill.
Janet Weddle has joined us as project manager to help us keep development on track. She has helped us set up Kanbanchi boards to track tasks and took over our most recent programming meeting (allowing me to cough freely without blowing out everyone’s headsets). I’ve been stretched very thin between management, bookkeeping, writing, and dealing with Kickstarter rewards, so Janet will be a valuable addition to the team.
Sadly, key team programmer Cidney was also caught in a serious car accident a few weeks ago. She has had two surgeries and is doing well, but we’re much more concerned about her recovery than in shackling her down to the counting room - er, programming - desk just yet. However, Cidney assures us that she wants to get back to work on Hero-U as soon as she is able.
Finally, it wouldn’t be Christmas without a Christmas Card, so here’s one JP Selwood created for all of you:
This is a guest article by Judy Feng with additional material from Corey. Judy has been helping us add new features to our Composer story editor and will be working on other parts of Hero-U game play.
Since the previous update, another 600+ backers have filled out their BackerKit surveys. We still need over 600 surveys. It will be a great help if we can get closer to 100% as it takes me 5-10 minutes to manually resolve each incomplete survey - a week or two of time away from the game. We can't realistically order t-shirts or other merchandise until all of the surveys are completed and resolved.
If you receive an email reminder to complete your BackerKit survey, please handle it or send email to support (at) hero-u (dot) net (sorry, but we've been getting many automated spam messages lately) to let us know of any problems you are having with the survey. You can also access your survey at https://hero-u-adventure-role-playing-game.backerkit.com/.
A recent question asked, "What is the scheduled release date?" I've been saying Spring (June) 2016, but since we aren't in Alpha yet, Lori's estimate of late Fall (November 2016) may be more realistic. We'll try hard to complete the game earlier - it's just as critical to us as to our backers - but we won't release it until we're satisfied that Hero-U is an excellent game with no major bugs.
From Story to Sardonia
What's involved in making a game? Why does it take so long? The answers might surprise you - there's a lot more than meets the eye. Let's take a quick peek behind the curtains of Hero-U.
At the heart of every adventure game is the story. (You enter the room. What do you see? Who is there with you? What happens when you push the button?) The designer describes the scene and all of its possible interactions (and their consequences).
In an ideal world, everything would come together in a single glorious swoop. As the designer tells the story, the artists' brushes (or styluses) would be a whirlwind of color; scenery and objects and characters would pour out of every surface, which animators would immediately bring to non-motion-captured life.
A symphony director would gesture madly (5/8 time! Now 4/4!) and a full orchestra and choir would respond in perfect harmony without needing a musical score. Programmers would capture all of this real-time data - story, art, animation, music - dynamically generate a world, shove it into a app, and... voila! A game would be born!
Sadly, game development in the real world moves far more slowly. Shockingly, it actually takes hard work and a lot of it.
From the earliest design phases, Corey and Lori planned the Sea Caves as an important environment in Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption. One of Shawn’s classmates has a pirate father and is looking to recover his lost treasure.
But treasure is never so easily gained. Great reward requires great risk. Lori had visions of sea caves filled with diabolical puzzles, deadly traps, and dangerous creatures. Not least would be the Undead Pirates guarding the final treasure. Yes, it’s a trope, but a fun one! Hero-U would follow in the grand tradition of Tim Powers’ “On Stranger Tides”, Ron Gilbert’s “Secret of Monkey Island”, and of course Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean”.
Waving their hands and saying, “Zombie Pirates - make them so,” would have been nice and so very efficient. In practice, first the Coles had to lay out the caves, figure out how to make them work - the backgrounds were still 2D at the time, come up with puzzles around the caves and the pirates, work with an artist to get sketches, other artists to make them look real, programmers to make it all work, and another half-dozen or so steps.
Paul Bowers sketched some zombie pirates and the pirate captain. Richard Aronson contributed some ideas about dead parrots and pirate hats. The cave maps went through four or five iterations as Corey, Michael, and finally Lori tried to create caves that would feel huge, but still be practical to paint and program.
By late 2014, they were ready to cut out the Sea Caves out of the game or make Hero-U episodic and move them to the second episode. The problem - the Sea Caves are a major part of the game story, and they’re Too Cool to Cut. Instead, Corey decided to run a second Kickstarter campaign to raise additional funding to keep Hero-U a full-sized game.
After multiple variations, here is the latest version of the Zombie Pirate captain, converted to 3D and animated by Al Eufrasio with textures from JP Selwood. The programmers will add the hat "at run-time".
The Whole Story
How do we even tell a story in a video game? Unity is great at showing things, but talking about them is harder. For Hero-U, we built a custom tool called "Composer" to describe the objects, participants, and interactions for each scene.
Composer is like a storyboard tool (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Storyboard), but a bit more complex - it documents the direction of the player action, rather than the direction of the art. For example, the demo might be documented as one scene (the "Break-In Room"), multiple items or "props" (the desk, the bookshelf, etc.), at least two participants or "actors" (Shawn - aka the player - and the cat).
Composer also captures interactions. What happens when you click on the cat? You see a list of options to pet it, talk to it, kick it, or do nothing. This list is represented in Composer as a "script", like "Interact with Cat". The cat doesn’t say much, so it’s a pretty simple script:
Scene: Break-In Room
Props in the scene: Desk, Bookshelf, ...
Actors in the scene: Shawn, Cat
Scripts in the scene: "Interact with Cat", …
1. Pat the Cat
- "Do you like your back rubbed, cat?"
2. Talk to the Cat
- "Hello, Cat... Did your owners lock you in here while they went out for the night?"
2. Introduce Yourself
- "So, cat, you'll be able to tell your great-grand kittens that you met Master Thief Shawn o'Conner on his very first break-in success. Aren't you proud of this moment?"
3. Question Cat
- "I don't suppose you've seen a small silver coin with a shamrock symbol stamped on it, have you?"
3. Kick the Cat . . .
All of these options - and the dialogue - are created within Composer. Composer persists everything (scenes, props, actors, scripts) as individual objects with relationships.
Additional custom code which translates the Composer data into a format usable by Unity, a 3rd-party game engine. When all of the game assets are ready (the art, models, scenes, etc.), we hook up our Composer story logic to our game assets. This means we can tell Unity to associate a Unity Scene with our Composer "Break-In Room" Scene, and a Unity cat model with our Composer "Cat", so that clicking on the Unity cat will auto-magically trigger our "Interact with Cat" Composer script.
Of course, that’s a really simple case - you’ll meet that cat at most twice during the game, and it doesn’t say much that Shawn can understand. Writing believable conversations in our style of game is far more complex. Lori crafts custom dialogue for every character for each game event in each scene where they appear - sometimes that means 50 or more dialogue trees for one character.
Here’s a small excerpt from a Composer script that handles the meeting with the Rogue Instructor just after midterm exams:
GerhardsOffice: Add Tags: [09 After the Midterm]
Master von Urwald: Is this a social call, or did you have a purpose to coming here?
1. Say something Polite (Charm)
Shawn o'Conner: It's always a pleasure to speak with you, sir. I learn so much by what you say and do. You are an inspiration to us all.
Charm check vs 60
Add 1 reputation to Master von Urwald
Master von Urwald: You need to be a bit more adroit with your flattery, Herr O' Conner. Do not call attention to your motives by saying too much.
Master von Urwald: You are beginning to sound like Herr Sosi.
2. Say something Clever (Smarts)
Shawn o'Conner: I had a few questions to ask you about the university. I'm trying to better understand what being a hero really means.
Smarts check vs 60
Success or Failure: Add 1 reputation to Master von Urwald
3. Say something Snarky (Moxie)
Shawn o'Conner: I just came to see your smiling face and interrupt your afternoon nap with my annoying questions... sir.
Moxie check vs 60
Add 1 reputation to Master von Urwald
Remove 1 reputation to Master von Urwald
Master von Urwald: Get on with it, then.
1. Ask about the Master
Shawn o'Conner: Do you think of yourself as a hero?
Master von Urwald: Am I a hero? An interesting question...
Master von Urwald: What I do here at the school is evening the scale of justice, weighing a little more on the side of Good.
Master von Urwald: However, I do not think of myself as a hero. Nor am I villain. I am merely a teacher who hopes that my words will inspire others to be heroes.
And so on (this is just one small section of the conversation). Note the skill checks - if you haven’t been practicing your Charm, don’t expect to get away with flattery. However, even trying to use a skill unsuccessfully has a chance of improving that skill.
If you're familiar with programming, you might be wondering why we put this data in Composer, instead of directly in Unity. Although developing Composer was very costly, we only had to pay that cost once.
Now Composer decouples storyboard and dialogue from development. Lori and Corey don't need to wait for Unity scenes or models to be created before they can start writing, and artists / animators / programmers can work in parallel on different items. The less time we spend waiting, the more time we can spend working. And writing several thousand scripts takes a lot of time and work!
How Does This Sound?
One of the high points of any game comes when we add the music and sound effects. In the case of Hero-U, we were lucky to get much of our music from renowned composer Ryan Grogan early in the project.
One of our stretch goals in this year’s Kickstarter funding campaign was improving the quality and quantity of music in the game. We’re excited to announce that Ryan is currently in Budapest, Hungary working with the talented Budapest Scoring Orchestra to record a fully orchestrated version of the theme!
From art to programming to music and sound effects, everything in Hero-U goes through multiple stages and a gigantic amount of work. If we were sensible, the game would be much smaller, but we believe depth and fun trump practicality. We only have to build the game once, but we hope that many players will each play it multiple times when we’re done.
We hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the inner workings of Hero-U.
I extended the BackerKit lockdown date to Oct. 5 to make time after this update. If you have not completed your survey, please get it done today. We have 6,900 completed surveys and 1,100 to go. Chris and I will have to go through each incomplete account - that could take 100-200 hours of work away from the game.
When we lock down on Oct. 5, you will still be able to make corrections to your email address and other information, but it will no longer be possible to order add-ons. We will use the numbers from the completed surveys to order posters, t-shirts, and other add-ons.
Cidney and JP have been working hard on improving the look and feel of Hero-U. We’ve evolved a long way from the early demos, and want the user interface to match the theme of the game.
Hero-U is all about conversation and your relationships with the NPCs in the world, so we updated the interface to emphasize that aspect of the game. Character portraits are larger and show more expression rather than being confined to a small box. Conversation menus have a less boxy and more storybook-style look.
The improvements might seem subtle, but they set the tone of the game. Conversations should feel real, and the environment should be as rich and interactive as we can make it. Shawn needs places to buy school and adventuring supplies, and to sell things he finds in the dungeons – or acquires from their hapless former owners.
In most modern games, you click on something and a fixed action occurs. Hero-U is much more complex, as we try to give the player choices as often as possible. Also, in the Quest for Glory tradition, the passage of time is critical.
For example, students might discuss adapting to school life in the first few days, but later on they have much more important – at least to them – topics. As a result, each character has hundreds of dialogue lines, varying according to the player’s actions and outside events.
The goal is to make you feel that you are Shawn and really present at Hero U. We think we’re making great progress towards that goal.
BackerKit sent the surveys out (under my name - Corey Cole) yesterday, and you should have received yours by now. Please answer the survey both to make sure we have correct current information (such as your address) and to make sure we got all of your add-ons correct.
If you see a problem with your account, send email to email@example.com so we can fix it. We've fixed several problems already, and I'm sure there are more.
I've heard there is an issue with "collapsing" your two pledges from the 2012 and 2015 campaign. I will work with BackerKit to resolve that.
Do *NOT* pay extra money unless you are ordering additional add-ons. Chris Fong and I did a tremendous amount of manually filling in spreadsheets based on text entries in our original backer spreadsheet. As a result, there will certainly be some errors. If BackerKit is asking you for more money, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll fix it.
If your add-ons included preordering the second Hero-U game (Wizard's Way) or an extra copy of Hero-U, you should have paid $18 for each, but I listed them as $20 each on BackerKit. If you've already filled out the survey, that would have shown you as $2 short. I have fixed that by crediting all of those accounts an extra $2. I need to do a second pass for people who pre-ordered more than one copy; I'll do that tonight.
Add-on t-shirts were not added due to a conflict between our spreadsheet data and the BackerKit database. If you added a t-shirt to the first campaign, please put the price into the tip jar - we mailed out all of the t-shirts last year.
Any other issues - please let us know by email. Thanks for your understanding as we go through this very complicated process. The folks at BackerKit have been extremely helpful, but we are doing things their system wasn't really designed to do.