No, you don’t need to adjust your system clocks: I’m sorry to disappoint you but it’s actually Monday, not our usual update Friday. For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to send this thorough piece and (I swear) every time something happened that prevented me from putting the final touches. So I thought to myself “hey, it’s not like Fridays are sacred or something”, and decided to simply post the update whenever it made sense. It was a very liberating experience.
Anyway, we’re finally here, but first some briefs comments about upcoming plans: things have been rather quiet outside the Kickstarter world Asylum-wise, and while interest on the game remains as strong as ever as signaled by tons of likes or retweets every time we show signs of life, we’re getting ready to resume serious promotional efforts. One beautiful and memorable day Asylum will be finished, and that day is definitely getting closer.
Well, it turns out there are other social networks besides Facebook and Twitter, and actual people visit them. Unbelievable! For example, our first foray into Ask.fm where anyone can ask us a question about Scratches, Asylum, horror or anything that comes to mind, has been amazingly well received with already dozens of insightful answers and more piling up. Similarly, our launch in SoundCloud has been a sound success (haha, see what I did there?).
And wait, there’s more: I’m putting the finishing touches to our Tumblr blog where Pablo and myself will be posting more regular, small tidbits about the development of the game, as well as a Pinterest account that will blow your mind with never-seen-before concept art, our collection of references that we used to build the Hanwell Mental Institute, new screenshots, and fan art. Speaking of which, please, feel free to send us your creations (be it Scratches, Asylum or Serena) as I’m going to feature everything we receive. We’re also doing Instagram because what the heck.
There’s a solid schedule of updates readied including new materials and interesting things to discuss. To sum it up, this will become the extent of our social kingdom, so be sure to update your bookmarks and stay tuned:
- Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/Senscape
- Twitter: http://twitter.com/senscape
- Tumblr: http://blog.senscape.net
- Google+: http://google.com/+Senscape
- YouTube: http://youtube.com/Senscape
- Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/senscape
- Ask.fm: http://ask.fm/senscape
- Instagram: http://instagram.com/senscape
- SoundCloud: http://soundcloud.com/senscape
Oh right, I still have to write the actual update.
So, let me explain…
Why is Asylum taking so @$#& long?!
The really short answer boils down to two aspects: first, and I know I’ve said this a gazillion times, Asylum is a large and complex game. I admit we overdid it; its development over the years has been a carefully controlled but risky endeavor, and without this Kickstarter I sincerely have no idea where we would be now. It’s not just the sheer size of the Hanwell Mental Institute but the detail we’re investing in every location, in addition to high quality characters (this in particular has been a major factor in our constant delays).
Second, the implementation of the game. You see, Asylum has very curious requirements: the node-based presentation provides plenty of advantages, especially the ability to show super-crisp and immersive graphics at the expense of free roaming (which an adventure rooted in exploration and slow-paced gameplay doesn’t need). Artwork takes a helluva time, but we don’t have to worry much about polygons, textures, spare use of lights, etc. Whereas graphics can be produced without major headaches, the programming side can be a big burden: for instance, and this is often the case, a same room or location can have several nodes and repeated hotspots. There may be an object that can be seen or manipulated from several angles, which means recreating the hotspots for every occurrence. Extrapolate that to dozens and dozens of locations, minding our stubborn desire to provide as much interaction as possible, and the amount of work needed grows real fast.
At first my intention was to reproduce the same approach to Scratches: make a dedicated engine that addresses and simplifies this particular workflow, as well as maximizing the performance of the game. This was back in 2009 when Unity was nowhere close to the juggernaut it is today and the average computer owned by an adventure game fan wasn’t very powerful. As development of Asylum progressed, it became clear that the needs of the game were far more demanding than Scratches, especially for the inclusion of NPC’s (which Scratches cleverly avoided thanks to the premise of the story). Just as well, initial considerations such as performance were no longer a concern. We’ve discussed the reasoning behind the engine switch at length, and why it makes far more sense now to continue developing Asylum with Unity.
However, the big shift of paradigms in the implementation meant a complete rethinking of the project: when you program a “standard” 2D or 3D adventure, you have no choice but to rely on visual tools to aid you in the process. In general, you must place the background (2D) or scene geometry (3D), set the areas that can be navigated, and define interactive regions. It’s a simple workflow and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel to automatize this process. But node-based is a whole different story: you have an average of 3-4 nodes per location and each node contains six textures. In addition, nodes may contain an average of 4-5 hotspots each. And to make matters even trickier, I’m writing several replies when a hotspot is an object that can be examined — at least six different lines. Think about that.
When producing our own engine, it made plenty of sense to program the game logically: we don’t need to “see” the full node to place its textures and define hotspots as it could be done programmatically via scripting. For this task, our implementation of Dagon was very useful, extending the philosophy and features in SCream (the engine behind Scratches). But, as Unity provided better features and removed lots of hurdles out of the equation (porting, rendering, testing, etc), logical programming stopped making sense. The worst drawback in Dagon has always been the lack of visual tools, which take much time to produce, but we could get away with scripting alone the way the engine was devised. My first attempt in Unity was to replicate this model (combining the scripting in Dagon with Unity’s features). It wasn’t very successful: Dagonity was relying too much on unsupported plugins with undesirable overhead (for example, Lua interfaces) and lots of hacking; I had to pause and think about the consequences, because it’t not just programming the game — there’s also a question of stability and maintaining the code.
Moreover, whereas it’s complicated and time-consuming to produce visual tools for a standalone engine, it becomes trivial and painfully easy to adapt the Unity editor for your needs. I’ll be showing some of the things we did in an upcoming update, but bottom line is: we had to go from one extreme to another, from pure logical programming to a complete visual toolset based on Unity.
*drinks more coffee*
Bits and pieces
Now, let’s put the content of Asylum in numbers. It’s not unheard of for an indie developer to spend 4-5 years in a game alone. In fact, I keep hearing about such cases. In our case, it’s getting closer to six years now, which may sound like an awful lot, yet it’s still understandable given the scope of the game and polish we’re investing in it. I’ll try to measure the production in terms of wo/man hours:
When it comes to locations, each one took an average of 1 month. We have about 90 of these in the game, and keep in mind a location can mean a small place such as the janitor’s closet as well as a 10-node long hallway or the large courtyard. 90 months of work divided into two modelers leaves us with around 3.5 years just for one aspect of the game. Sadly, the budget gets increasingly more prohibitive the more people you hire, meaning it’s far cheaper to take more time.
Then there’s the characters: we have 10 in total appearing on screen, 4 of which must interact with the protagonist and have dozens of small animations and additional detail. For the 6 secondary characters, it’s been around 1.5 months, and the primary 4 closer to 3 months; we almost have 2 more years here.
Other time-consuming aspects include the cutscenes, the major one being the intro which took 2 months, with another month for the conclusion of the game and possibly two other months for additional video. See how months start to add up real fast? And that’s not even considering the time I’ve been investing in programming, research, planning, design, writing and boring management. There’s also music, sound effects, promo materials such as trailer, etc.
Recently this article published by Polygon caught my attention. No need to open the link, I’ll just tell you: $80,000. Being extremely conservative, about $46,500. I don’t intend to claim our characters are on the same level as such AAA productions, but think about that for a second: we have four full-fledged characters, plus six additional secondary characters, as well as several generic inmates and our Unique Inmate that plays an important role in the game. To put all this in perspective, the entire budget for Asylum (including this Kickstarter) still doesn’t reach $200k.
Enough excuses — I’m fully aware of the endless delays and I still owe you a complete status report of the project (coming up in the next update). I absolutely understand how frustrating it is to wait for so long for a single game, especially after you already bought it. There’s nothing more I can say to make up for these delays except that we’re very sorry, that it’s been a royal pain to plan ahead and commit to deadlines while trying to deliver the unique horror experience we promised. At the same time, I hope this update provided an insightful look on the nature of the project and a better understanding of our perspective. The good news is that every decision we’ve taken has been the right one: from forgoing publishers to migrating to Unity, every milestone in the project has been one step further up the ladder. The production of Asylum has been a learning (and revealing) experience, and the game in its current form, with all its bells and whistles and top-notch quality, is a result of an erratic but adventurous road and your incredible support.
Comments, questions and insults are always more than welcome. You’ll be hearing from me soon with more tidbits, screenies, soundies, and playable thingies.
*puts the coffee maker to work*