It’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these fellas, but GarageGothic on the AGS forums encouraged me to make a new entry in the Twelve Interviews series. He even suggested the topic and interviewee! So GG, this one goes out to you.
Pieter Simoons (a.k.a. “Radiant”) is the proprietor of Crystal Shard Games. In the past two years he has released several innovative and fun adventure games such as META and Warthogs. More recently, he accomplished the thing that hundreds of doe-eyed amateur adventure gamers attempt and fail to do: He released a huge, epic, and high quality adventure game. During the creation of A Tale of Two Kingdoms, Pieter led a team of dozens of people on a quest that took over two years to complete. This installment of Twelve Interviews focuses on the difficult task of leading a team through the development of an amateur adventure game.
First off, tell us a little about yourself.
I’m a graduate in computer science who started on a full-time job shortly after beginning the ATOTK project. I have been interested in game design ever since I was ten or so, starting out in BASIC. Of course, AGS didn’t exist yet, back then. My first real game was completed when I was fifteen; since then, I’ve worked on several dozen projects, ten of which qualify as completed full-scale games.
Aside from that, I live in the Netherlands and enjoy dancing and debate, as well as being reasonably competent at wind surfing. I am told to have a quirky sense of humor and a radiant personality, hence the nickname.
You recently released the long-in-production A Tale of Two Kingdoms. Give us a brief rundown of the history of the project.
A Tale of Two Kingdoms took slightly over two years to make, involving several dozen artists, musicians, and playtesters. It is inspired by Celtic mythology and Grimm’s fairy tales, and of course by the Sierra and LucasArts classics. The game strives to combine the best elements of these in an epic and multi-sided story.
It is a large game, containing about eighty rooms and spanning nearly 100 megabytes in quality graphics, animations and music. It involves a lot of detail, such as the falling leaves and fluttering birds in many rooms, and has some unusual features with secondary characters that wander around and can be given orders.
Double question: Why undertake such an epic task to create a freeware game? Did you ever consider making the game commercial?
I have actually created commercial games in the past, and it was briefly considered to make ATOTK commercial as well. However, having a wide audience has greater appeal than making some relatively small amount of money from the game â€“ which would have to be split between over a dozen people that contributed in varying amounts, and so forth.
Why undertake it? Because being creative is a very fun and rewarding activity, even if it can take years. We started out small and watched the project grow, and now we can look back on something impressive that we created. I feel that is more rewarding than ending up with a check at the end.
Many team members took part in the production. How did you recruit people to the team? Did people come and go from the team or was it mostly the same group of people for the entire production?
Part of the recruiting was done by watching the AGS forums and contacting people who offered their services or displayed good skill; aside from that, some people contacted the team and offered their help directly. New recruits are asked to create a piece of art or music for the game, in a timely fashion. This is then used in the game; or, if it is of poor quality or simply never completed, the recruit is dropped. There are quite some people that enthusiastically offer to help, but turn out to have not enough time on their hands.
The makeup of the team varied over production, as new people were taken in and older members moved on to other things.
Have you been the leader of a large team project like this before?
Yes. I have completed two projects of this magnitude before ATOTK, specifically SubTerra (an action/puzzle game) and Leylines (a turn-based strategy game). Please see our website at www.crystalshard.net for details. Aside from that, there have been numerous minor projects â€“ for instance, we did some one-week projects to the side just to get our minds off of Theylinn for a while.
Did you have an extensive design document that you used to direct the teamâ€™s efforts?
Kind of. Most of the rooms, puzzles and characters were written down early in the project, and we went from there. This includes a list of all items with where to find them and where to use them, and a directed graph of puzzle progress, to ensure there wouldn’t be any dead end situations. Some of this was changed later on, usually when someone had a cool idea we could use. For instance, the room with the cliff bottom was not in the original design, but since an artist thought it would look good and started drawing it, we added a purpose for it in the game.
How did you dole out responsibilities and make sure the team stayed organized and on track? Take us through, for example, the development of the art assets for a room in the game.
The art assets for a room basically consist of asking a particular artist to draw a particular room. I tend to give people wide leeway in how to draw something, sticking more to general guidelines of the atmosphere of the room, and what objects required for the game’s design. This is then sketched and colored in. Later on in the project, we spent some time letting artists touch up work for one another, to improve consistency. Aside from that, since most of our artists are perfectionists, they would touch up their own rooms, and in some cases re-do them from scratch if they weren’t satisfied with their result.
Staying organized is the matter of splitting the work into practical chunks of, say, one room or one character each, and keeping track of which artist is working on what. We had a forum for communication, and organized chat sessions over IRC or MSN to keep in touch.
Do you think itâ€™s best for the team leader to also take on the roles of designer and/or programmer? Do you ever wish that you could have worn fewer hats during the production of the game?
While I did spend more time than I wanted to on keeping the team together (especially early on, when a lot of time was spent recruiting people), at least for indie games it is best if the team leader has a practical development skill. Often, but not always, this turns out to be the programmer, as the programmer is the one who has to put everything together and make sure it fits. I do not believe there is room in volunteer / amateur teams for a person who just “manages” but doesn’t do any concrete work. I don’t mind wearing two hats, but it was a lot of work at times.
How much game design input or story/puzzle suggestions came from other team members? Was it your way or the highway, or was it more of a team effort?
Feedback is, in my opinion, crucial to game design. If a team member points out something interesting that is missing, or notes that a situation or option doesn’t really make sense, it deserves to be listened to; if not, when the game is released, people who play it will likely note the same things, and the game will be the poorer for not making use of that. Incidentally this is why so many of ATOTK’s puzzles have alternative solutions.
Were there any stumbling points for you as team leader? Did you ever feel like you could have more effectively directed the teamâ€™s efforts?
Writer’s block is a big issue. As they say, a large project is 10% inspiration and 90% ; it is next to impossible to stay focused on a big project for a long time. A low point during development was a month in which basically no progress was made at all. A way of dealing with this is to take on small side-projects for variety; examples of such projects are Warthogs and META.
A stumbling block early on was the lack of sufficient sprite artists. This was resolved when Fizzii, one of the background artists, decided to teach herself sprite work. Another stumbling block was the lack of suitable auditions for some parts of the voice pack, since nearly all the auditees were teens or students, and several of the characters in the game are very old. This wasn’t really resolved; we eventually decided to drop the voice pack.
What advice would you give to someone else who was leading a team in the development of an adventure game for the first time? â€˜Causeâ€¦ uhâ€¦ I have this friendâ€¦
Start out small. It is far more motivating to succeed at making a small game, than to start a big project and fizzle out.
Be prepared to change. Designing the story and puzzles is one of the shortest tasks in the overall development. Do not adhere too strictly to what you’ve written down in week one, and be prepared to change anything, everything based on feedback.
Speaking of which, you can never have enough feedback. Get your friends to play the game for a bit, while you sit next to them writing down their comments. If they fail to understand some situation or puzzle, or consider the interface inconvenient, it is your responsibility to fix this.
Be honest about your skills, and other people’s skills. This requires some tact, but if something looks or sounds bad, it needs to be said. This also means that if something is wrong with your own work, you must be open to people who tell you this.
And remember, everything takes twice as long as you think it will.
Finish of the interview by saying something deep and/or profound.
The Indie community persistently shows that you don’t need a lot of money to play a good game, nor to create one. The next time you play a commercial game and think of something that could have been better, remember the opportunity is yours.