It’s been over a year since our first commercial game, Quest for Infamy, was released and with the impending release of our next two games I figured it was as good a time as any to look back at what we’d done and make some of my thoughts public. I’m going to try and be objective in this article, but as with anything creative, a lot of ourselves went into it so a lot of the time things I like or hate are my personal feelings. There’s plenty of reviews on the internet if you want to see what other people thought!
Steve (Steven Alexander – my partner is this crazy game creation business) and I have talked a lot about our game in the time since it’s release and we’re pretty much on the same page with this stuff, so while I’m making writing this post, we’re both in agreement about it. Two final thoughts before we start, a lot of people worked very hard on this game so I’m using the the terms “we” and “our” when talking about it to simplify matters. And secondly, this is going to be quite a long post, so grab a drink!
As most people will know, we started the Quest for Infamy ride over a decade ago when we wanted to make a Quest for Glory fan-game. We did a lot of what I’d now call pre-production; we had a lot of brain-storming sessions and we had a game plan and parts of a script. We also had some concept drawings and the beginnings of the game scripted in Adventure Game Studio. There were a lot of problems with that fan game, the biggest being we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, so it got shelved. The game you’ve (probably) played is nothing like this fan game with the exception of the name and a few character names we took across (Rayford, Manfred, Kit etc).
After putting that fan game on the back-burner, we worked on and released two fan remakes of classic Sierra titles prior to this (three really when you include the Troll’s Tale game-within-a-game we jammed into Space Quest II) so in an overall “yeah we’ve made games before” sense, I think we were in a good position. I went into the release of Quest for Infamy a bit of a cross between confident and a state of complete panic. A great community had already formed around those remakes so we had some experience in dealing with the weird and wonderful world of adventure gaming in the internet era. That was the confidence. The panic was we’d never tried to sell our stuff before and that was (and still is) bloody scary! That all said, on the business side of things, I think we did okay. We made a few mistakes but we learned a lot about promoting and selling indie games and most importantly we met some fantastic people who’ve really helped us out and taught us a lot. (If you’re interested in the business side of things, I could be persuaded to writing a second blog post about it, but for the moment there’s too much of the game itself to talk about!)
Where to start? There’s so much good stuff in and about this game that I struggle to break it down into only a few things. What I can say is that we went into making this game with the view of honoring adventure games as they were done when we were growing up, and with that in mind I think we succeeded. We chose the art style, the resolution, the interface and just about everything else based on our desire to emulate those old games. That is 100% what we were going for so although there were some grumblings about things like the pull down icon bar, it’s not something we see as a negative. That’s what we wanted to do and that’s what we did. I will note here that although we bound ourselves into emulating a specific era and style, we weren’t limited by the technology that someone like Sierra was in 1992. We do use digital sound and a 24-bit color palette for example, we just used those tools to emulate older games.
The vastness of the world and the variety of each locale is something I think we did very well. The Germanic forests and village of Volksville giving way to open grasslands, autumn-like southern beaches and the Greek influenced Tyr really add a lot of variety to the game and because of the way the game was scaffolded, you worked a lot in one area before you advanced to a new area and this really helped to sell the scale of the world. Exploration was always a great part of older adventure games and this game gives that in spades! The art team did some amazing work on the backgrounds for this game and really sold the vision that we had.
The animations were also exceptional for the most part. There are some complicated animation sequences in this game and while some are obvious, others are less so. Roehm climbing down the rope and jumping into the water at the bottom of the well is an example of an animation that took a LOT of work to get right but probably doesn’t look like it. Some other notable mentions are the various river animations, in particular the waterfall which is a great example of creating a classic look with modern technology and software. Another notable animation is the brigand ambush quest, which is a lot of smaller animations working together to produce a highly memorable scene. And of course, and this is a personal favorite of both Steve’s and mine, is at the end of Act I with Roehm opening the Killington Crypt. It just works so well and adds so much to the game.
Another thing we did well was in the characterization of Mr Roehm, who is seriously one of the most fun characters to write. What works with Roehm is how he isn’t just an evil guy who is out to kill, pillage and destroy, but Steve wrote him from the outset as an almost lovable rogue who was out for himself. I’ve said it a lot in interviews and such, but writing evil lead characters doesn’t really work in adventure games and I think we balance Roehm being likable with his complete and total selfishness and self-interest. The negative of this was that we should have explained the difference between being an evil bastard (which I think is what people expected) and a self-centered asshole. A bit more fleshing out of his character in the early stages, maybe some backstory, could have helped a lot. Steve Patrick’s voice work of Roehm’s lines were delivered perfectly and really add to the realism of the game. Another notable character is the narrator who we tried to make into an interesting character of itself, and this was completely sold by James Mulvale in his portrayal. Interesting note here, one reviewer who was very critical of the game in general pointed out the poor British accent and choice of shoe-horned in British words like “bollocks”. That is James’ accent for the most part, and he (and I) use words like bollocks in real life. So there!
So Roehm was the person we intended him to be, some more work should have been done to show his character – apart from all his smartass quips.
As well as the background art, the animations and the voice work, all the other parts of the game worked together to build a cohesive and life-filled world and that is the biggest positive I see in this game.
On a personal level I really was happy with the mines section. This was the bulk of the “extended content” that was a stretch goal in the kickstarter and almost completely my work. Something I’ve always loved about Quest for Glory 1 was the way they created the forests out of only a couple of backgrounds which they added objects to or flipped to make look different, so that was my programming inspiration for the mines in Quest for Infamy. Excluding the “static” rooms such as the dwarven camp and the lake, the mines are a single room with a large variety of objects (including the cart track, barrels, shovels and sacks) and it was something I worked very hard on when I scripted it. The mines were in my mind a throwback to games like Zork where they were very much dungeon crawls with monsters hiding at every turn. The main thing I regret is I never got around to making a Grue monster (if you’ve played Zork you’d know that Grue’s were used to stop players advancing through dark rooms without a light source). I had pictured in my mind the player entering a screen on random and it being black and a Grue attacking Roehm with the combat screen being completely black except for Roehm’s magic attacks. Unfortunately it never eventuated. One puzzle in this section I’m very proud of is the cavern because of the multiple ways to cross it, in particular jumping because if you’re not running you just stand on the edge and jump to your death. It just appealed to me to make a puzzle where running or sneaking made a notable difference.
Our biggest regret in Quest for Infamy was the amount of stuff we had to cut from Act II and Act III simply because it would have taken us another three years and $100k to get all those ideas in there. A complaint I have seen in a few reviews was that while Act I set the scene really beautifully and was quite deep and lengthy, Act II and Act III (particularly) were a lot shorter. Yep. We agree. There’s some cool stuff in Act II especially, the overall story arc of being Rayford’s bitch and doing his dirty work worked very well and a few of the extended quests we cut would have really fleshed this out a lot more. We wanted to bring the player along and build Roehm’s antagonism towards being used a lot more than we ended up doing but this is the payoff with commercial titles. If this had been a fan game without having people’s livelihoods riding on it, we would really made this section bigger.
One of the areas I personally programmed was the combat and statistics systems and I’m still not completely happy with how this turned out. Balancing the combat proved a lot more difficult that we initially anticipated, with the blocking move being a hell of a lot more powerful than anticipated. We tweaked this area of the game SO MUCH during production and beta testing but it still wasn’t perfect. I do like the change which we made in the update later on that made use of the combat difficulty button by removing the healing component of the block function if it’s set on hard. (Side note: In the initial release, the combat difficulty button did nothing! One of the little in-jokes we had in the game that nobody picked us up on!)
Another thing we could have done better was sign-posting at times. By this I mean showing the player in a natural way the solution to any particular puzzle. For example, the chess style puzzle in the well had a solution in a book in the library but unless you went into the well first and tried the puzzle the option to ask about it at the library didn’t show up. A better solution would be to possibly have the body of another adventurer in the well and have a ripped book on him that was obviously the solution to the puzzle with some narration saying “Hey, the book is ripped and unreadable but if it’s got a solution maybe the library has another copy.” or something like that. As for people who complained about this particular puzzle not being appropriate in a modern game, it was there because – again – it was a homage to the 80’s and 90’s adventure game that had these sorts of things by the truckload. Plus, a little clicking in the well and you could easily skip the puzzle with the solution book from the library “Using the book, you solve the puzzle without having to expend a brain cell. Way to go, spazz. We figured we’d offer you a challenge, but apparently you’re not up to the task. Congratulations on finding this alternate, yet lame, solution!”
Another area that certainly needed more work was the voice pack. It was very uneven, not in terms of quality of acting for the most part (although there were a few poorly acted parts – some by yours truly), but in the varying quality of the recording equipment used. This was most noticeable in scenes where multiple characters talked and it really took the player out of the experience. While some characters such as the narrator and Roehm were of a good quality, other more minor characters certainly weren’t. Again though, this wasn’t the acting for the main, but the quality of the equipment.
The “Meh, that’s ok” ‘ives
At a time when GamerGate was starting to really heat up, we did receive a small amount of criticism for our portrayal of women in the game. Particularly the large breasted, scantily clad women. The reason I put this into the “meh” column is because we’re still satisfied that we did it and I disagree with the assertions that we simply did it for male titillation, but we can also appreciate why some people didn’t like it.
The first point is a general one in that Quest for Infamy is a homage to a lot of things. Adventure games of the 80’s and 90’s obviously but also the high fantasy art of some brilliant artists such as Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo and amazing fantasy works such as the Conan mythology. Therefore while we can certainly respect that some people don’t like these particular portrayals, it was an artistic choice based on the fantasy we have always loved.
To be specific the three characters we received the most criticism for were Kit – the bartender in Volksville, Kayanna – who was the real puppet master of the game, and Voleris who was the captain of the Tyr’s Arrows. Kit was a stylized self-portrait by Jenny Pattison, our character artists, and we certainly didn’t give her any direction on where to take it. She is also a play on all bartenders in classic fantasy, tough as nails and has seen everything before. “I’m a lonely bartender in a small town. Are you here to save me, eh?” or “No, you know, I haven’t seen anyone like that around. But if I do, you bet I’ll scramble to tell you, because I’m your personal assistant.” Sarcasm; she’s obviously wise to you and wants no part.
We also played against the typical characterizations of women in fantasy because while these three women were drawn in that style, their personalities were not that of subservient or weak women. Neither Voleris and Kayanna gives an inch to Roehm, neither of them take a backwards step or swoon and fall at his feet at his flirtation. “Like I haven’t heard that one before… Slick.” or “Don’t press your luck! You DID just give me a dagger!” or “Well, thank you. I’ll put it with the other gifts foolish men give me.” or “Ugh. This is the stuff Udo peddles. You realize this smells like a dead corpse, right?” Something we could have certainly done better with Voleris is to explain her choice in clothing. I know we had a backstory written for that but it got lost in the process. Kayanna on the other hand is a shapeshifter and chose her buxom appearance specifically to appeal to Roehm’s base desires.
While we certainly appreciate that some people don’t like the look we gave those characters, they served the (narrative) purpose they were in the game for and played against type which was the intention.
I’d give ourselves a 7 from 10 for our first commercial game. We accomplished the vision we set out to create and we made a detailed and interesting world and adventure in it, but at the same time we fell into some classic traps of adventure games. So overall we’re happy with the final product. We certainly learned a lot about game creation and world building and have used some of those lessons to make our next games better.