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Hero-U is a turn-based PC RPG with adventure game puzzles and immersive story, by the award-winning designers of Quest for Glory.
Hero-U is a turn-based PC RPG with adventure game puzzles and immersive story, by the award-winning designers of Quest for Glory.
Hero-U is a turn-based PC RPG with adventure game puzzles and immersive story, by the award-winning designers of Quest for Glory.
6,093 backers pledged $409,150 to help bring this project to life.

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Happy Hero-U Holidays

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Lori and I, and the entire Hero-U development team, wish all our loyal backers and friends a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. (You can check out last year’s holiday card and poem at http://hero-u.com/happy-holidays-2015/.)
Have a Very Meepy Christmas
Have a Very Meepy Christmas

 

I recently shipped all of the “soft goods” – Hero-Unicorn baseball caps, All the Heroes t-shirts, and Blue Meeps – to backers who chose them as rewards in the 2015 Kickstarter campaign or BackerKit. Much thanks and appreciation to Eric Varnes, who designed the images on both the new hats and t-shirts.

Check your pledge at https://hero-u-adventure-role-playing-game.backerkit.com/backer/welcome. If your pledge included a t-shirt, cap, or meep toy, you should have received it by now or at least received an email saying it’s in the mail. If you think you are missing a toy, meep, or t-shirt, contact support (at) hero-u (dot) net.

While you’re at it, please make sure your email and mailing address are up to date on BackerKit. We’ll need them to hook you up with digital and physical game rewards, including the game itself.

I still need to print, package, and mail poster prints to backers who ordered them, and canvas prints to high-end backers from both campaigns. Lori and I decided to wait on shipping prints until we release the game, as it makes much more sense to have a Hero-U poster or painting once you also have the game.

Oh, That Door Looks Perfectly Safe
Oh, That Door Looks Perfectly Safe

The Year in Review

2016 has been a roller-coaster ride for us. There have been some great and exciting moments, and some sad and terrifying ones. If I needed to describe it all in one word, it would be “unpredictable”. Sadly, I could use the same word to describe most of the development of Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption.

The hardest part of running a small indie business has been turnover. To date, we’ve had about 30 people work on Hero-U, but currently we’re down to four regular developers, three occasional contributors, and Lori and me. Health, family, and computer issues have cost almost every team member at least a month during the year, and much more for some. I’m not going to go into details, but many events unrelated to the project have created huge stress for us and the team this year. These challenges have continually impacted the schedule, but we’ll keep pushing until the game is done.

On the positive side, we’ve made tremendous progress with the game. I’m personally funding it at this point, and that’s appropriate. “With great risk comes great reward.” – Dungeonmaster or maybe the D&D Player Handbook. Fortunately, Lori and I turned 60 while working on Hero-U, which opens access to our retirement accounts. We’ll try not to exhaust them, but the game comes first! We’re much too young to actually retire.

I hope that sword is just for scaling the marlin
I hope that sword is just for scaling the marlin

A lot of that progress is filling out the fine details of the game text and dialogue. Lori is down to the last few conversations. Josh Mandel has done a wonderful job of filling out the characters and game world by making every object in the game interactable. Our “Explorer” players – and everyone has some Explorer in them – are going to love the fine detail and humor that Josh has infused throughout the game.

Joshua Smyth continues to fill out the game with improved rooms and regions, better lighting, and of course the role-playing game combat. Each monster type has its own “personality” and behavior, although most share the common trait of enjoying the taste of rogue (or any other careless student). We lost Joshua to a “day job” for several months this year, and I can’t emphasize how critical he has been to the project since returning.

Al Eufrasio has had a tremendous impact on the look of the project as our animator. Al wrote a great post about the decisions involved in animating characters that I will share in the next update.

Unity Programmer Help Needed

I’ve had a balancing act throughout the Hero-U project. We need the right developers to complete and polish the game. But we also had to reach “critical mass” on the design, writing, and asset creation so they could get their work done. We also have a limited budget by game development standards, so we’ve had to run with a very lean team. That’s fine except when there’s turnover. In 2016, we lost most of Cidney’s time to recovery from an auto accident, Carolyn left for a full-time job, and most of Adam’s time to a triple-whammy of a dead computer and illness in the family. And now he’s moving on to a full-time day job, which will limit his time in 2017.

Lost in the Sea Caves
Lost in the Sea Caves

To finish Hero-U, we need one or two programmers to work with me on polishing individual scenes. The work will be a three-month contract with possible extension. If you have the right qualifications and want to join our small team, please contact me at jobs (at) hero-u (dot) com. (Note that this is a .com address, not .net as in the support email.) You must meet all of these requirements:

  • Experience developing games with Unity and C# (at least six months).
  • Available to work at least 20 hours a week, up to 40.
  • Able to work independently with a minimum of supervision.
  • Ability to communicate well with other team members.
  • Since this is a short-term contract, we prefer that you have your own Unity Pro license valid for Unity 4 (this is included in Unity 5 licenses).

RPG Investment Opportunity

Artcraft Entertainment – developer of the upcoming Crowfall RPG – is selling shares on Indiegogo and Microventures. This is an opportunity to invest in the long-term success of the game, although it is of course also a high-risk investment. Visit https://app.microventures.com/crowdfunding/artcraft-entertainment to learn more. For more about the Crowfall game, visit http://crowfall.com/.

Artcraft is headed by Gordon Walton and J. Todd Coleman. Gordon was an executive in charge of Ultima Online, The Sims Online, Star Wars: Galaxies, and Star Wars: the Old Republic. Todd was creative director on Shadowbane, Wizard 101, and Pirate101. I know Gordon through conferences, and I rate him One of the Good Guys.

Crowfall RPG Concept Illo
Crowfall RPG Concept Illo
Merry Christmas! We’ll see you all in 2017. We’re all wishing for a much better year and a Hero-U release that will bring joy to you and us. Have a happy New Year!

Risk and Reward

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Beyond Random

I learned a lesson in improbability many years ago while playing Risk. My 12 armies were about to eliminate a player’s last two defenders. When the dust cleared multiple dice rolls later, my lone remaining army stared helplessly at the remaining single defender.

The lesson – high probability is not the same thing as certainty, and low probability is not the same thing as guaranteed failure. We all watched those lessons hammered home in last Tuesday’s U.S. Presidential election, and before that with the Brexit vote.

It’s an important lesson for game designers – there is no such thing as a 90% chance in a one-time puzzle. That puzzle is really a 100% chance for 90% of the players, and a 0% chance for the other 10%. If you want players to solve the puzzle, make it 100% solvable, or allow players to try multiple times until they solve it.

Lockpicking in Hero-U works that way – you might encounter a lock Shawn can’t open, but he’ll get a little practice attempting it. After enough practice and study, and a more advanced toolkit, Shawn can come back and open the lock. Trap disarming involves both Shawn’s skill and the player’s, but every trap can be disarmed with practice and cleverness.

I'll Need Some "Lock" to Open This One
I'll Need Some "Lock" to Open This One

 

Risky Business

Risk and Reward applies to other aspects of games as well. Backing a Kickstarter project is risky because any project could fail or turn out to be a mediocre game. The hoped-for reward isn’t actually the game itself – it’s helping to make that game become a reality.

From the developers’ viewpoint, the risks are immense. Crowdfunding rarely provides the full budget for a game, so the developer has a monetary risk. They are also committing years of their lives to making the game and other rewards for backers. If the game sells well, they’ll be rewarded. If it fails, all that time and money is gone. However, we’ll have made a game – or hopefully several – of which we can be proud, and that’s its own reward.

Then there are the unforeseen risks, and occasionally rewards. Turnover has been a schedule – and sometimes momentum – killer for us. Thirty people have contributed to the project to date, ten of whom are currently working actively on Hero-U. With our limited budget and distant communications, I don’t know how we could have done much better in that area.

The rewards have come from some amazing team members making terrific contributions to the project. JP Selwood has been with us from the beginning, and his portraits and backgrounds are a beautiful and essential fabric for the game. Our New Zealand contingent of Joshua Smyth and Adam Thompson have added a lot of programming muscle and creativity to the project in the later phases. Finding the right team has been our biggest challenge in making Hero-U.

A Golem Guards the Path
A Golem Guards the Path

 

Project Status

Several team members have had personal and family challenges recently, but we’re working through them. I’m shooting for “feature complete” and alpha testing in January, with Beta testing in February or early March and release 2nd quarter 2017. It’s been a long, stressful journey, but the end is in sight.

After release, we’ll be very busy for several months. First we’ll fulfill the rest of the physical rewards that depend on the game - the boxed games, art book, and canvas prints. Then we’ll visit our super-backer in Germany and make some publicity stops in Europe. Meanwhile, the team will continue to fix any problems reported by players, and we’ll investigate porting Hero-U to other devices such as tablets.

Then we’ll move on to Hero-U 2. We hope to see you on Wizard’s Way!

Sending them Softly

The “soft goods” are ready to roll. I purchased the Hero-Unicorn caps and “All Kinds of Heroes” t-shirts last month (see image at bottom), but a family situation delayed shipping them. I plan to get them out by the end of November.

If your reward tier included a t-shirt, cap, or meep toy, or if you ordered any of those as an add-on in the 2nd (2015) campaign, please visit BackerKit and make sure your address is up to date. Visit https://hero-u-adventure-role-playing-game.backerkit.com to verify your rewards and contact information.

References

For more on the surprising frequency of unlikely events, read: The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day by David J. Hand, or The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

I haven't been keeping up with recent Kickstarter adventure and role-playing games, so instead let me give a shout out to Serena Nelson's Cliqist site - http://cliqist.com/. Her team does a great job of covering relevant game projects.

Clothes Make the Meep
Clothes Make the Meep

 

Showing the Story

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How do you tell a story in an interactive medium? How do you give players agency while giving them a good story and keeping the game size manageable?

How can a game writer tell a strong story while also making it the player’s story for each and every player?

There isn’t any single answer. Action games minimize the story, and instead provide an experience to players. Most role-playing games focus on combat while telling a bit of story between (and sometimes during) fights.

Lori and I set a higher bar in our Quest for Glory games. We told stories in which the player was the hero, but players also had the freedom to explore. And yes, fight some monsters to prepare them for tougher challenges.

Sneaking into Danger
Sneaking into Danger

A Balancing Act

How are we balancing story and player agency in Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption? It hasn’t been easy, and that’s the main reason this game is taking so much longer to develop than we predicted. We’ve had to balance our ambitious storytelling goals with some practical compromises. Some of the decisions we’ve made along the way were:

  • Each game will feature a single character class, and a particular character. This lets us tailor each game’s story for that character.
  • There is a traditional, linear story that progresses around the player.
  • If the player fails to act, another character may become the hero for that scene.
  • Reputation and relationships are important, and mostly controlled by player actions.
  • No movies or long cut scenes once the game has started.
  • No voice acting, at least in the initial release.
  • Combat is mostly or entirely avoidable at each player’s choice.
  • The story is developed in dialogue, and players have many choices.
  • Exploration is important, and everything in the game responds to players.

We originally pictured Hero-U as a place where players could walk around and explore. The first attempts, as pictured in our 2012 Kickstarter campaign, were chessboard-style maps. The problem is that those aren’t immersive. We quickly switched to an isometric “stage” view, then to using 3D so that scenes could be much bigger than a single screen.

Last year, when Al Eufrasio joined the team, we started adding much more animation that we originally envisioned, following the storytelling rule of “Show, don’t tell.” But we still needed a way to advance the story visually.

Beware the Deadly Pizza Tornado!
Beware the Deadly Pizza Tornado!

Enter the Vignette

The 1990s answer was “cut scenes”, or non-interactive film-like sequences. LucasArts made these work very well in games such as Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. But cut scenes have a lot of problems in a game like Hero-U.

One problem is that the player has to sit and wait for the cut scene to complete before going back to exploring and saving the world (or at least maintaining a passing grade). Another is that many cut scenes destroy immersion because they are not from the player’s viewpoint, nor under her control.

But the main problem with cut scenes is that they’re small movies. They have to compete with Hollywood artistry, and that’s beyond both our expertise and budget.

Our solution is the “vignette”, an image that illustrates a particular event in the game. This gives players a closeup showing how their actions affect the game. When a vignette appears, it also represents time passing.

A simple example is suppertime in the dining hall. When Shawn sits down to eat, we bring up a vignette showing a closeup of the Rogue - er, excuse me, “Disbarred Bard” - table. We have several variations on this image depending on how Shawn and the other characters feel about recent events in the castle.

Game text can appear over a vignette. Images and words together tell a story much more effectively than either alone.

An Unwilling Student
An Unwilling Student

State of The Game

We’re making great progress. Adam immediately started to bring new tools to our development process, such as ways of showing the interaction points for all of the objects in a scene. This is a great way to make sure that every object has a waypoint and that they’re in the right places.

Currently we’re working on mini-games such as trap disarming and puzzles. Joshua is getting back to the combat system after adding many new features to the game and Composer systems.

Our target is Beta at the end of the year, and release once the game is absolutely solid. Due to the complexity of character interactions and the scripts, we expect to have an extended beta of around 3 months.

Please keep your address information up to date at www.backerkit.com so we can ship your addon items. We have additional content and a place for your friends to pre-order and support the game at www.hero-u.com. That’s also where you can join us on the Hero-U discussion forum.

Hero-U T-Shirt Back
Hero-U T-Shirt Back

The development history of Quest for Glory 1 and 2 is featured in this long Digital Antiquarian article - http://www.filfre.net/2016/09/so-you-want-to-be-a-hero/.

Check out Woven on Kickstarter - https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1355836783/woven-solve-puzzles-by-reknitting-your-character. The tag line is “Explore a woolen world threatened by metal insects. Customize your character to get past obstacles. A unique narrated adventure game.” It’s a unique look and might be a fun game.

Characters in Woven
Characters in Woven

 

The Hero-U Olympics

29 likes

As I write this, the top athletes in the world are striving - questing, even - for glory in Rio de Janeiro. Our fantasy heroes have been in the questing business longer, but everyone is looking for heroes.

Olympic Glory

Currently the sporting event best representing the final stages of quests for glory is the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Getting to the Olympics at all is the toughest part, but once there, an athlete must be among “the best of the best” to medal. In the end, the medal is really a memento of years of dedication, hard work, and talent.

Winning the Rogue of the Year award at Hero-U may not have the same popular awareness as an Olympic gold medal (especially since officially there are no rogues at Hero-U), but it’s still a difficult and challenging feat. The winner must excel at charm, intelligence, skill, and athleticism to take the prize.

Can He Do It?
Can He Do It?

Rogue of the Year is the Disbarred Bards version of the “all-around” competition in a gymnastics event. It isn’t so much an event by itself as an award for being the best at many different skills.

Skills to Pay the Bills

Hero-U features seven skills: Combat, Defense, Stealth, Tool Use, Climbing, Throwing, and Gaming. Each has a unique role, and together they are one of the major differences between a traditional adventure game and a hybrid adventure/RPG such as Hero-U and Quest for Glory.

Instead of a series of puzzles, each with only one solution, Hero-U presents “problems” to the players. Frequently there is more than one solution to a problem depending on Shawn’s skills and the player’s play style. We made a design choice to have a small set of skills that each apply to many situations. For example, “tool use” helps with picking locks, disarming traps, and other tools you may find in the game.

As in Quest for Glory, players can improve their skills, and even their “stats”, through study and practice. Let’s say the player decides Shawn should spend an hour practicing on the tightrope or climbing rope. Either will improve his climbing skill and slightly improve his Fitness and Agility. Playing Poobah is not just a way of earning Lyra; it also improves Gaming, and helps with Smarts, Perception, and Luck.

Practice, Practice, Practice
Practice, Practice, Practice

Challenges within the game are “gated” – Shawn must have a high degree of skill before he can even attempt to use a Houdini 42 toolkit to disarm the most dangerous traps. There is also a mini-game for the player to analyze each trap. As Shawn improves his Tool Use skill and Perception and Luck stats, the game provides more clues to help the player solve the trap puzzles.

Team Changes and Schedule Update

It also takes a lot of skills to make a game like this. We are fortunate to have a team of dedicated developers who are each contributing part of the heart and soul of this game. However, four years is a long time to devote to a single project, and many of our team members have moved on to other jobs. While we miss their presence, we also want to thank them for their contributions and wish them success at their new pursuits.

Our most recent alumni are programmer Carolyn VanEseltine and 3D background artist Aaron Martin. Aaron completed his work on Hero-U, then moved on to another full-time art position. Carolyn also has a new non-gaming day job. In her “free time”, she is one of the founding directors of the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation. Read more about Carolyn and her work at http://www.sibylmoon.com/author/carolyn/.

3D Model of the Nido King Wing
3D Model of the Nido King Wing

Fortunately, we were able to immediately find a programmer to finish the Hero-U room programming. Adam Thompson of Auckland, New Zealand. Check out Adam’s indie games at http://www.emotiontheory.com/. Adam is a Unity expert and a fan of adventure and role-playing games. We’re very happy to have him on the team.

Where does all that leave our schedule? We plan to reach “code complete” before the end of the year - I’m shooting for mid- to late- November. At that point we will put the game through an extensive testing process, including making builds available to everyone who backed at the $35 or higher level in Kickstarter. We’ll put out the final release when we have a clean version, likely early next year.

I plan to ship non-game physical goods such as Meeps and posters this Fall. Please keep your address info up-to-date at https://hero-u-adventure-role-playing-game.backerkit.com/ if your pledge included any physical goods.

Shawn Triumphant
Shawn Triumphant

 

A Tale of Two Castles

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The Castle Home of Hero University
The Castle Home of Hero University

The university for Heroes is located in an ancient and foreboding castle with a long and storied history. Here you will explore the mysteries of the past and how they affect the present and future games. As part of our research into the the broad topic of “fantasy schools in medieval castles,” we recently explored another famous school - Hogwarts, the School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Hogwarts is quite close to Hogsmeade, a charming traditional village. Both are apparently located in Universal Studios Hollywood, although it’s possible some interdimensional rifts were involved in our visit. (You don’t often see snow on the rooftops of buildings in Southern California in the summertime… nor in Sardonia.)

Hogwarts Castle inside Universal Studios Hollywood
Hogwarts Castle inside Universal Studios Hollywood

Walking the Line

It took about 40 minutes to get from the entrance of the Harry Potter attraction to the actual ride. We spent most of that time walking around the castle grounds and inside the castle itself. There were always new things to see and examine, and the exercise was undoubtedly good for us couch potatoes.

Shawn will get plenty of exercise as he walks around the Hero-U castle and improves his skills in the practice rooms. As for “new things to see and examine,” they are everywhere in Hero-U! Our castle is filled with curios from around the fantasy world, and Shawn can interact with all of them. There are surprises everywhere.

Talking Heads

One of the first things we noticed inside Hogwarts was the profusion of animated, talking portraits. They carry on conversations with each other, many played by actors from the Harry Potter films. (See https://www.pottermore.com/writing-by-jk-rowling/hogwarts-portraits for more details on magically-animated portraits.)

The portraits in Hero-U are much better behaved, mostly staying within their frames. However, each portrait in the halls of Hero-U has its own story to tell. Many of them are portraits of backers, but each is also an artwork in its own right.

Portrait of Lenkyl Greatstorm in the Hero-U Basement
Portrait of Lenkyl Greatstorm in the Hero-U Basement

There are some “interactive people” in Hogsmeade Village, actors representing vendors and townspeople. Most of them could have been in any store, but a few took their acting seriously. I particularly enjoyed talking with a Hogwarts Express conductor - he really knew his Harry Potter lore.

Hero-U is another matter entirely. Lori has spent most of the last three years crafting dialogue for each of the dozens of actors at the University. Everyone has unique things to say that fill out the background of the school, provide important game hints, or are just for fun. Shawn’s roommate Aeolus loves to compose lyrics to music, but the melody is not always completely original - see how many popular songs you can recognize as his inspirations.

By the way, most of the dialogue changes every day, so don’t assume you can get to know people in a single conversation.

Rogues Meet in the Practice Room
Rogues Meet in the Practice Room

3-D Action

Like most of the attractions at Universal Studios, the Harry Potter ride is a 3-D motion simulator. Your broomstick seems to soar above and through Hogwarts as you encounter some of the scenery and situations from the Harry Potter films. It was definitely fun, but also a challenge for those of us - such as Corey - who suffer from motion sickness.

Corey has a similar problem with 3-D action games such as first-person shooters. The sometimes jerky, uneven motion is more than he can stomach, so to speak. That’s one of the reasons why we are going out of our way to make Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption a very different experience. Yes, we have 3-D environments, but you control the action. Combat in particular is turn-based - it’s about strategy and tactics, not about how fast you can click.

Top Five Similarities Between Hogwarts and Hero-U

  • Both are schools situated in ancient castles.
  • Wizards study their Gramarye there; magic is in the air.
  • Deadly terrors lurk beneath, and sometimes in, the schools.
  • Filch and Mr. Terk both think their schools would be better without any students.
  • Harry and Shawn find both staunch friends and malicious enemies at their schools.

Top Five Differences Between Hero-U and Hogwarts

  • Hero-U offers many other disciplines than Wizardry, even Roguery.
  • Hogwarts students play Quidditch, not for the faint-of-stomach. Hero-U students play Poobah and other games that do not require flight.
  • Mundanes and magicians mix freely in the halls of Hero-U.
  • While many Hogwarts teachers have quirks, only Hero-U has Kwirks.
  • There is no “chosen one” at Hero-U; anyone can be a Hero.

There is another big difference between the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios and the Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption game. Their development budget was over $500 million; ours is closer to $500 thousand (or $1 million counting deferred costs). As a result, Universal charges about $100 per visit. We let you visit Hero-U as often as you want for $30 or less. What a bargain!

We look forward to opening the doors of Hero-U to our Beta testers late this year. Depending on the results of the tests, we’ll release the full game either at the end of this year or early next year. Both Wizarding World and Hero-U took several years to develop, but they are experiences you will enjoy exploring.

Snowy Rooftops in Summer at Hogsmeade Village
Snowy Rooftops in Summer at Hogsmeade Village

BackerKit Reminder

If you have moved, and whenever you move in the future, please update your mailing address on BackerKit. I would like to gradually fulfill physical goods orders as I have time available, and I become really sad when a package with $5 or $10 of postage is returned because we didn’t get a change of address.

You can reach any of your BackerKit projects by logging in at https://www.backerkit.com/master_backer_accounts/sign_in.

Interesting Kickstarter and Indiegogo Games

Buck (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1441684765/buck-2d-post-apocalyptic-noir-action-adventure-gam) has potential. They have a demo available from the project page so you can check it out before backing.

Unity (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/215931791/unity-tabletop-rpg) looks really nice and has some interesting concepts. This is a tabletop RPG, not a CRPG. If you like experimenting with new tabletop systems, consider giving this game book a try.

Herbert's Quest (https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/herbert-s-quest-a-medieval-madness-adventure-game#/) is an interesting experiment - a game created in a week using only Unity Store assets. It’s by Oded Sharon, an Israeli game developer with whom we worked on the Bolt Riley game. You can pledge as little as $1 to get a copy of the game.

Zartana (https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/zartana-an-interactive-storybook-adventure#/) is a paper (book-based) interactive adventure game that looks gorgeous.

Indivisible (https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/indivisible-rpg-from-the-creators-of-skullgirls#/) looks impressive. It’s a high-budget Japanese-style RPG, already funded at almost $2 million, but looking for extra backers for their community and stretch goals.