AdventureX 2014 wasn't all just game demonstrations. Over the course of the two days there were a variety of presentations on all-things-genre-related. Talks covered periods from the past 20 years of a well-known Spanish studio to the future of games up to 2050. Those thinking of starting their own games could get tips from those who had already achieved success in doing so. There was even a presentation from yours truly on our own Following Freeware article series, covering four years of the top free indie adventures. Add to that a crazy quiz of adventuring knowledge and the chance to chat with gaming luminaries as they took their place on the Hot Seat, and there was something for everyone.
Josué Monchan –Twenty Years of Pendulo Studios
Josué Monchan is a game developer who also specialises in localising games into his native Spanish. One of the projects he is most proud of is a game for Save the Children that teaches children their rights. The tricky part of this project was getting the message across whilst fitting a child’s attention span and managing to make it fun. Inexplicably to Josué, whilst the game is available in Spanish, there have been no moves to translate it into English. His current main project is Blues and Bullets, an episodic noir thriller with a somewhat older target audience. For adventure gamers, however, even if you don’t know his name, you’re likely very familiar with his work, as for the last ten years he has worked for Pendulo Studios. His talk covered the ups and downs of the studio over its two-decade existence, and the lessons to be learned from them.
Back in 1994 when the studio was founded, there was nothing in Spain that could be called a games industry. Pendulo Studios were the first developers to really set up in the country. Unlike today, there was also no ready availability of game engines, so everything needed to be built from the ground up. Their inspiration for developing adventure games was LucasArts. This was clear in their debut release, Igor: Project Uikokahonia, which bears some resemblance to 1992’s Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. During their next project, Monchan claims that the first lesson was learned: that a developer should treat each game as if it were their last. If you hold back good ideas when they can be used in a game, you risk the game you produce being poorer for it. This sophomore title was Hollywood Monsters, which was based on the premise that horror movie monsters were not people in make-up but actual creatures. Whilst the concept was good, the gameplay was not thought through properly and resulted in players feeling overwhelmed (an issue they later corrected for international release when the concept was reworked as The Next BIG Thing.)
The company’s next project was Runaway, the first to see a major release outside Spain, and therefore incorrectly thought to be their first game by many. With this, Josué felt that the studio finally found their own voice, creating their own graphic style and no longer aping others. Here another lesson was learned: trust the publisher, but remember it is your game. The distribution was initially handled by Dinamic Multimedia, which went bust soon after its release, putting the publishing rights at risk as a result. The game was subsequently picked up by FX Interactive, which was founded by ex-Dinamic Multimedia staff.
He was kidding
The success of Runaway led Pendulo to make a sequel, The Dream of the Turtle, with disastrous results. The main problem was that the game was given a large budget, but the planning necessary to handle that budget was not in place. The result was that the game grew beyond control, without proper direction. At the same time, the decision was made to release the game in six languages, with localisation to be added in a further thirteen. The translation costs alone skyrocketed, which ate up far more of the overall budget than originally anticipated. As a champion of localisation, Josué felt largely responsible for encouraging this, leading him to jokingly suggest the lesson “Don’t Hire Josué Monchan.” There was also a failure to listen to criticism. In Germany, this led to the phrase “Runaway Syndrome” becoming common in gaming circles after a poor design decision. It describes the situation where a player takes a single object they need at the time from a container, but the player is given no indication that other objects that will be useful later are still in there. The subsequent third instalment, Twist of Fate, sought to learn from these mistakes.
“Beware the Bubble” was the next lesson. The first example of this danger was when Pendulo was assured that the Nintendo DS was the future of adventure gaming. They invested heavily in cartridges before the huge enthusiasm for the system died down, and ended up losing money on the deal. Having struggled to achieve any new successes, they then went on to make a new Runaway game on the 10th anniversary of the original release. But what may have started as a good idea at the time is now looked back on as a terrible idea by Josué and his fellow designers. The game was Hidden Runaway, a hidden object adventure whose only real link to the original was the presence of the same lead characters and settings. The game was largely ignored by the adventure gaming public, to the bemusement of the publisher who didn’t grasp the distinction.
In recent years, Monchan feels that the studio has managed to move with the times. Yesterday achieved widespread critical acclaim and has been a success in terms of sales. There has been a move towards catering to the more casual gamer, with the puzzles taking a back seat for more focus on the story. There have also been moves to make friends with other developers and interact on forums, an activity Josué heavily participated in over the course of the weekend. Pendulo Studios may have had its rough patches, but with enthusiastic and engaging people like Josué Monchan on board, I hope they continue to produce games well into the future. And with the recent news that Pendulo has signed an agreement with Microïds to produce a brand new (as-yet-untitled) adventure, they may very well get that chance.
Francisco Gonzalez – Dos and Don’ts of Writing in Adventure Games
With an extensive freeware career behind him, and a recently-commenced commercial career with Wadjet Eye (A Golden Wake) keeping him busy presently, Francisco Gonzalez has a lot of experience with game creation. In this short talk, he tried to pass on the lessons he has learned for writing them in a way that works.
The first lesson is to neither hold everything back, nor get too carried away. If a character looks at a door and simply says “It’s a door” then that is a disappointingly boring response. If they instead recount their entire life experience of doors, then the player becomes overwhelmed with irrelevant information. The trick is to aim for the middle ground, providing a little information with relevance to the game if possible. By way of example, he showed a character from his newest project, noting that a door seemed to be rather well-made for the abandoned building it was attached to. This made the door more than just a mundane object, and hinted that there might be more to the building than meets the eye. Thus useful information is conveyed to the player in a natural way.
When it comes to characters speaking to one another, dialogue can often end up unbelievable. Francisco stressed the need to think about how people actually speak, and try to mimic that. Fail to do so, and it is all too easy for non-player characters to become nothing more than living signposts, only there to convey certain information to the player. Gonzalez felt he had lapsed into this latter problem with Percy in the Ben Jordan games, who often seemed to spend time reciting great chunks of exposition. By considering what makes the character interesting, whether their social class, race, or origins, you can tailor the dialogue to match that background. If you are unsure whether something sounds like natural speech or not, try saying it out loud. On more than one occasion, he has found that dialogue that looked perfectly fine on paper sounded peculiar when vocalised.
Running the writing past an editor who is a native speaker is a vital step. This is most important when dealing with translations, but cultural differences are also relevant. Especially when dealing with slang, the differences between what is natural in the US and the UK, for example, are huge. Writing that sounds unnatural for the setting kills immersion in a game faster than almost anything else. Finally, on a related note, the words themselves need to be carefully considered. Playing a game is fun. Having to stop every few minutes to look up a series of obscure or unfamiliar words is not.
Whilst having no plans to go into game writing myself, the insights from someone of Francisco’s experience proved fascinating. I hope that those who do write adventure games will take his advice on board, as those games will be the better for it.Continued on the next page...