Behind the Scenes - From Story to Sardonia
Recent Hero-U News
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 10% of 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. They’ll add the hat later.
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
- 1. Greet - "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
- Success: Add 1 reputation to Master von Urwald
- Failure: 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
- // Gerhard appreciates the intelligent question even if Shawn doesn't ask it well.
- 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
- Success: Add 1 reputation to Master von Urwald
- Failure: 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.