The game is developed by Wormwood Studios and will be released by WadjetEye (the company behind other recent adventure games like Gemini Rue and Resonance) in December. The game’s writer, Mark Yohalem, got in touch with me recently to see if I might be interested in playing a media preview of their game. Given how busy I’ve been with Codename: ICEMAN and now Hero’s Quest, I’ve not yet had a chance to play it, but I liked the idea of interviewing Mark and his artistic partner in crime Victor. Mark agreed, not only to answer my questions, but also to answer any questions you guys might have about the game and development in general. Below is the result of that interview (it's long, but offers many insights that I'm sure you guys will appreciate), and it coincides very nicely with Primordia appearing on GOG for pre-order in the last couple of days.
A brief story outline from the website: "What happened to the humans? Set in a post-apocalyptic world strewn with cast-off machines, Primordia tells the story of Horatio Nullbuilt, a stoic robot who values his solitude and independence. Horatio spends his days studying the Book of Man, sparring with his droid companion Crispin, and tinkering with the airship they call home — a peaceful existence that becomes threatened when a rogue robot steals the energy source that the pair needs to survive. When Horatio and Crispin’s search for energy brings them to the dazzling city of Metropol, the simple quest to recover their stolen power core leads to unexpected discoveries about Horatio’s origins and a new understanding of the legendary humans who walked the earth before him."
THE TRICKSTER: What better way to start than finding out who the minds are behind Primordia? Can you reveal a little bit about yourself (and Victor if he’s handy)?
MARK: Like Daredevil, I'm an attorney by day. By night, I write stories for computer games. Before Primordia, I worked as a freelancer, primarily for large companies (Bioware, S2 Games, and TimeGate). I'm a Californian, and I'm married with kids.
VIC: I'm an Australian artist/electronic musician. I'm also into circuit bending. I spent the last ten years practicing illustration and concept art, and I was really into aerosol art before that. My life as an artist feels, at this point, like it was all practice for Primordia.
Daredevil: Mark's alter ego
THE TRICKSTER: Most of the readers of this blog (not all of them of course) are thirty something year old men who have fond memories of growing up playing adventure games. Can you tell us a little bit about the experiences that led to you making a retro point and click adventure game?
MARK: I fall within your "most of the readers" category. One of my earlier memories is playing King's Quest II with a friend -- or watching him play, anyway. I remember the perplexity I felt as the parser rejected our repeated efforts to identify the thing on top of the mantelpiece in the elf's house. (It was porridge, right?) I also remember utter confusion when the Batmobile came out of the cave.
It wasn't until much later -- when I was about 12 -- that I played Loom and fell in love with adventure games. One of the things that is staggering about Loom is the scope of the universe relative to the scope of the game. The manual has all this history of these Guilds that not only don't appear in the game, but don't matter to the game at all. And you have all these great spells (or weaves, I guess they were called) that never came into play, either. And the version I had came with this tape-recorded narration that added yet another level of world-building. At the same time, the game drew upon these deep cultural roots we have -- ones that I didn't even really know, but which still resonated with me as a kid: the Swan Maiden myth; the Greek Fates; Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty; the Emerald City from Oz; and, obviously, Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. The game simultaneously feels like an organic extension of the Western mythological canon and a full-formed universe unto itself.
"I played Loom and fell in love with adventure games"
So Loom more or less hooked me, and after that I played lots of point-and-clicks, as well as the parser version of Hero's Quest (now Quest for Glory), which I see is next up on your list. More or less contemporaneously with that, a friend of mine -- who's now a well-regarded professor of machine learning and natural language processing -- introduced me to the awful but awesome Hugo Whodunnit game. (Does anyone else remember the actual red herring? We have a shout-out to that in Primordia!) We beat the game together, and then made a terrible text adventure game called Quentin Questor. Having knocked out QQ1, we decided to make a graphical sequel that was, I think, set in the Wild West. We got our moms to take us to the library and got a bunch of books with reference images, traced a few of them, and then gave up a few weeks later. Ever since then, though, I really wanted to make a graphical adventure game. It only took me twenty years! (One of the items in Primordia is a "Quentin Questron LCD monitor" in homage to my misspent youth.)
VIC: Some of my fondest childhood memories are of playing point and click adventure games with my brother. So yeah, I guess there's a certain nostalgic draw to those games for me. Plus, as an artist, retro adventure games just seem to give me a lot more freedom with the kind of graphics I can make for them, different perspectives for the backgrounds, more diverse animation, low resolution that's a bit faster to produce but still looks good and has a nostalgic draw. I'll take low res over high any day. It just looks pretty to me.
"A friend of mine introduced me to the awful but awesome Hugo Whodunnit game."
THE TRICKSTER: How did Wormwood Studios come about and how did you catch the attention of WadjetEye Games? Have you and Victor known each other for a long time?
MARK: Vic and I met when I answered a random post of his asking for help from a writer. So we've known each other almost exactly as long as Primordia has been in development: 29 months. In that time we've exchanged tens of thousands of emails and IMs, but I don't think we've ever actually spoken, owing largely to the time zone difference but also just to the weird nature of Internet collaborations.
Wadjet Eye Games got involved when Dave Gilbert -- i.e., Mr. WEG -- saw the development thread Vic had started on the Adventure Game Studios forums. Based on the success WEG had with publishing Gemini Rue, Dave was fishing for additional games to publish. He contacted Vic, and the rest is history!
Gemini Rue really seems to have fueled an adventure game resurgence
THE TRICKSTER: I notice the game is “co-developed” by the two companies. What does that really mean? How much involvement do they have in the design aspects of Primordia?
MARK: I think it's inaccurate to say the game is "co-developed" by Wadjet Eye Games. More or less, WEG is publishing Primordia and Wormwood is developing it. WEG's only real development role is finding and coordinating voice actors and the composer, Nathaniel Chambers. But Nathaniel and the actors are not actually part of WEG; WEG is really just Dave Gilbert and his wife. That's not to say that WEG hasn't been extremely helpful in coordinating that stuff, manging QA and publicity, and cheerleading us over the finish line. But in terms of the core development aspects -- concept, art, code, writing, design -- that's all Wormwood's doing. It's nice to be able to focus on that while Dave does all the dirty work!
Primordia looks really dark, in a good way!
THE TRICKSTER: New games (not necessarily adventure games) are often criticised for valuing explosions over intelligence. Do you think players expect better stories from indie games because the focus isn’t on the shiny for budgetary reasons?
MARK: This question is awesome because, as best I can tell, in order to make the trailers for the game, WEG took every single explosion in Primordia and strung them together into a long animation. Since WEG knows more about marketing indie games than I do, I guess the inference is that indie players also want explosions?
Also, I'm not sure that indie games necessarily have better stories than corporate games. In fact, the best game writing I can think of is all from fairly large companies (Lucas Arts, Black Isle, Obsidian, Double Fine, etc.). The only comparable caliber in indie games that I can think of is in interactive fiction, where writers like Andrew Plotkin, Emily Short, Michael Gentry, and Adam Cadre (to name just a few) have done really excellent work. But interactive fiction lends itself more easily to virtuoso writing than other games do. When you look outside that genre, my sense is that indie writing actually tends to be either (a) actually less creative than the best corprate writing or (b) offputtingly arsty-for-art's-sake. In either case, I think it tends also to be mechanically inferior in terms of the cinematic aspect of writing (timing, brevity, things like that) as well as just basic grammar, punctuation, crap like that.
There's no way that background could be anything but hand-drawn. A dedicated art that gives real depth to the environment.
Now, having been a self-loathing contrarian jerk, let me walk that back a little bit. I think indie games (and, by this, I mean small-team indie games) -- at least the good ones, obviously there is an endless amount of terrible stuff, much more than with corporate games because anyone with free time and a free engine can make an indie game -- do tend to be better than corporate games in terms of having a "vision." That's because you have less publisher pressure, less market pressure, and less management pressure, and fewer members of the development team. Ultimately, Vic and I really only had to compromise to each other. That means that what you see visually is more or less the vision and execution of one person (Vic) and what you read in the story is more or less the vision and execution of one person (me). Obviously, Vic and I inspired each other -- his art and ideas affect my writing and vice versa -- but it wasn't like I was trying to manage a team or writers while satisfying a nagging boss or something.
What that means, practically, is that every line of Primordia's story (more or less) and every pixel of its art (more or less) is advancing the core themes of the game. With a larger team, there's only so much direction you can provide because much of the thematic content of a work of art arise subconsciously. There's no way I could raise another writer up to have all the same influences and experiences I have, no way Vic could do that for another artist. If you press us, I can probably explain to you the reasoning behind ever word choice in the script and Vic an probably explain to you the reasoning behind every color choice in every sprite. But I am 100% sure that I could not have directed another writer to write the lines the way I did because -- in most instances -- it wasn't until I wrote them that I knew what the line had to say. For me, at least, writing works kind of like John Rawls's "reflective equilibrium": there's a deliberative thematic effort but also a wild creative one, and each one has to be adjusted and checked by the other one.
Anyway, I think "auteurial coherence" (wow, what an obnoxious way of putting it) is why even indie games with relatively minimalist stories -- like, say, Spelunky or Cave Story or Mount & Blade -- nevertheless have a narrative strength to them. It's imbued in them by the creative process of having a small or even one-person team.
Horatio and his sidekick droid Crispin
THE TRICKSTER: Can Vic give us some insight into how the graphics development process works? Are “hand drawn” backgrounds exactly what they sound like? Does using an engine like AGS make it a reasonably straight forward process, allowing you to focus on art rather than technical challenges?
VIC: Almost all the graphics for Primordia, backgrounds and sprites, start out with a pencil sketch. I scan this and then paint it up using a Wacom tablet and graphical software, so yeah, I think it's pretty much as close as you can get to hand drawn without using entirely traditional mediums. One reason for this method is that I just feel most comfortable sketching and illustrating with pencil on paper. Graphical software is used to colour the scanned linework, as using acrylic or gouache to paint it (as was the case for games like Beneath a Steel Sky) would really take far too long to make it feasible for me. When I paint with traditional mediums, I tends to spend weeks on a single painting, so it just made a lot of sense to meet somewhere in between.
I find AGS is great for giving me a very smooth workflow. I can go from a thumbnail sketch, to pencilled lineart, to a finished and animated background within a day sometimes. That is, if I skip lunch and ignore the telephone. In fact, while working on Primordia, I also made a small game solo using AGS, called Beacon. I made that entire (albeit very small) game in under ten days as a distraction to shake up my creativity a bit. So yeah, the process of making adventure games in AGS can be a very fluid and rewarding process for the relatively technically unskilled, like myself. The beauty of AGS is it allows one to make games that are really only as complex as one would want them to be.
Beneath a Steel Sky - A big influence and a worthy one at that
THE TRICKSTER: I believe the game has voice acting by Logan Cunningham, who also worked on WadjetEye’s Resonance. Are there other voice actors involved and how exactly does the actor selection process work for this sort of thing? Is it simply a matter of saying “I need a deep, commanding voice” and then choosing from a database of hopefuls?
MARK: Lots of other voice actors. Dozens, I think. Basically Vic and I would describe the character and try to describe how the voice would sound, and Dave at WEG would offer up possible choices. We'd pick from those. Logan was really a serendipitous find because I was having a damned hard time explaining how Horatio (whom he voices) should sound. I'm not even sure I knew how. Logan basically just fell into the role.
THE TRICKSTER: You mentioned in your email to me that Gobliiins was an influence on your design. I haven’t played the game personally, but it looks to have a very puzzle-based approach with a high level of teamwork involved in the solutions. Could the same be said for Primordia? What other games do you feel influenced the design?
MARK: The main thing from Gobliiins is the idea of having a "party" of heroes in an adventure game, each with a specific ability that is useful for overcoming certain obstacles. (I could alternatively have mentioned Zack McKracken for that point, but I think I'd already mentioned that game elsewhere, and I was trying to establish my encyclopedic adventure-game-nerd credentials.) Primordia is definitely less puzzle-oriented, and even less teamwork-oriented than Gobliiins, but utilizing the various characters' skills is an important part of the game.
The larger influences for me would be Loom, Grim Fandango, and Monkey Island (from an adventure game standpoint) and Planescape: Torment and Fallout (from an RPG standpoint). Mostly I knew I wanted to tell a story that's not about saving the world, but about achieving the protagonist's personal goal; I wanted it to have a mythical quality to it; I wanted humor; I wanted the sense of a game world that was much larger than the game itself; and, on a brass tacks level, I wanted to have a small set of reused inventory items that functioned similarly to the "drafts" in Loom: so Horatio has a set of tools he gathers throughout the game akin to the drafts in Loom, but without the annoying memorization aspect.
Planescape: Torment: Stupendously awesome game!
THE TRICKSTER: A lot of adventure games these days have very linear progression, whereas retro games from the early days were often more open, giving the player choice on where they go first and in what order they attack things. What end of the spectrum have you taken and do you feel really effective storytelling and open puzzle progression can co-exist?
MARK: While I'd love for Primordia to be more non-linear, the truth is that I think we fall far short of the classic games. At most, I would say we might have four or five puzzles triggered simultaneously. It's almost never just one. But if you look at games like King's Quest I through V -- there you could basically go anywhere in this huge world, and there must have been dozens of active puzzles. You couldn't always advance in them, but they were there.
For several reasons, we can't reach that level. One reason is just a resources issue. As prodigious as Vic's talent is, one artist doing painterly scenes simply cannot create the amount of content that a classic Sierra or Lucas Arts game has. When there is less geographic space, linearity is more likely to occur simply because there is an upper limit to the amount of puzzle density you can have. Another reason is that I believe we have a stronger narrative component than the King's Quest games, which really were pretty much a series of thematically and narratively disconnected puzzle episodes. A third reason is a judgment call, but I think gamers -- myself included -- simply don't have the constitution to play really open games like that anymore, except for sandbox-type games. For example, I just read a negative review of the second Deponia game on Rock Paper Shotgun, a site that I consider pretty hardcore in terms of liking classical game design, that criticized it for having too much openess and freedom. Having been corrupted by more directed games, I lack the willpower to design a more open one!
All that said, Primordia's not a game on rails like, say, Dreamfall. There is never a point in the game where there is just one thing for you to do, except right as you approach the three chokepoints in the game (like the chapter ends in Grim Fandango, though there is no comparable break in the action). I do think that a certain kind of story-telling can fit with open puzzle progression: a story that is about environmental discovery (like Myst) or one that is very focused on the protagonist without much regard for the world around him. For example, you could have an open-puzzle adventure game based on a Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or The Fly scenario, where the player can pursue any number of avenues trying to cure his condition. The drama of the story comes from the protagonist himself, so it doesn't matter what order he approaches the puzzles.
Clarity: Do I sense some Giger influence Vic?
THE TRICKSTER: The story presses a lot of buttons for me, being a tale of friendship in a post-apocalyptic world, filled with very dark imagery. Beneath a Steel Sky and WALL-E both come to mind, which is a mix I’m willing to go with. Is the story something you’ve been toying with for a while or did it all come together to match Vic’s visual style?
MARK: A little of both, really. I'm a mass consumer of influences, and the influences from Primordia were already churning inside me before Vic brought me on board. The book The Road, a poem called "The Inheritors," Planescape: Torment, WALL-E -- all these things, along with projects I'd mulled but never developed -- were in place before I saw a brushstroke of Vic's artwork. But once I saw his art, everything became filtered through that. Vic also had a basic framework for the game already in place, and I more or less stuck to that. (Two robots who live in a crashed airship going to a big city.)
WALL-E: So much more than a kids movie
What's pretty remarkable is that I threw out an outline of the themes and basic plot of the story maybe a week into our collaboration, and the game came together almost exactly as planned (from a narrative standpoint). It's very rare for me to have an idea emerge so completely so quickly, which makes me think that Primordia's key story elements had been building inside me for a while. Also, working with a really good artist helps give concrete form to your ideas in a way that writing words on paper never can (at least for me).
One thing I'd urge on people trying to design games is to look outside of games for inspiration. (I wrote an Escapist article called "A Childhood in Hyrule" about this, under a nom de plume.) My own view is that games, at their best, remind us not of other games but of experiences we wish we had because of things other than games. A space-opera game that captures the feeling of, say, Star Wars is worth more to me than one that recreates the feel of Star Control II, even though Star Control II is one of my all-time favorite games.
Editor's Choice no less Mr...ahem...O'Hale
THE TRICKSTER: Can you give the readers some insight into the world of making an indie game? How many man hours do you have to throw at it? What are some of the biggest challenges those interested would likely face?
VIC: I can't really answer for anyone but myself here, but I found there was a pretty steep cost to make a game of the calibre and length of Primordia. A lot of the asset creation was a blast for me, as I love painting, but there were many, many hours of hard work involved that were just that: hard work. I'm not sure what challenges others may face when making a game, but for me the greatest challenge was to stay true to my vision for Primordia.
MARK: As I mentioned, it's been 29 months since we started. About six or seven months in, James Spanos, the coder, jumped on board too. I don't think any of us worked "full time" (i.e., eight hours a day, five days a week) for any prolonged stretch, but I would say that we were all putting in at least four hours a day of serious work every day of the week. (I'm really just speaking for myself; Vic may say otherwise!) So I would conservatively estimate that we're looking at something like 9,000 man hours for a game that probably will take well less than 9 hours to play through, even if you're very diligent. And that's not including the time Nathaniel Chambers (the composer and audio guy) spent, or that Dave at WEG spent inserting voice over, or that the voice actors spent recording lines.
The fact is, any game that relies on hand-made content will take a very long time. It doesn't matter if it's a text adventure, a run 'n gun, or a jRPG. And the amount of time it takes will be something like five times what you expect.
The darkness gives great opportunity for cool lighting effects
The biggest challenge, other than the sheer amount of time and work involved, is psychological. Precisely because it takes so much time and work, by the time you're halfway through a medium-length project, you're much better at game design, writing, art, whatever, than you were when you started. It's hard not to be somewhat disappointed by, if not disgusted with, your prior work. And it's hard to look forward to the finish line because it's so far ahead. It seems easier to throw everything out and start over or just give up. And even if you get over that hurdle, as you get close to the end, there's another terrible moment when you realize that you will never be able to get the game quite right -- there's no time, the technology you're using is inadequate, too much effort was invested already in approaches that cannot possibly yield your dream game. There, again, it's easy to lose spirit.
I guess the main lesson I've learned is that you have to finish things. For a long time I just tried to make big games, and never finished them. I got in a habit of abandoning projects, and -- for me -- habits are hard to kick. Eventually I switched to just writing fiction, particularly short stories. But even then I kept not finishing them. Then I started finishing, and kept finishing, and even if most of those stories are terrible, they're done. And the habit of finishing bad stories gave me the will to finish better ones.
It really must be amazing to see your story play out onscreen.
THE TRICKSTER: If you don’t mind me asking, is there any serious money to be made creating old school point and click adventures, or is it really just a labour of love?
VIC: For me, it's a labour of love that I hope makes enough money to allow me to keep making full-length games.
MARK: I think there is money to be made if, but only if, you are exploiting someone else! (I say this only half in jest.) As I said above, Wormwood sunk something like seven man-years into Primordia (which is just about the same as for Resonance). Based on my crude estimates, I think the best we can hope for is a yield of about $28,500 per person per year, which is just about the average personal income in the United States. It's also less than the average entry-level designer, artist, or coder makes at a game company. A more realistic estimate is probably something less than $10,000 per person per year, well below the poverty line.
Now, if you have a team where the royalties’ distribution is really uneven -- like the team leader gets 80% and the rest of the team splits 20% -- or you're talking about a publisher or portal, then somebody might be making decent money. But only because other people are working for an unreasonably low price! So, ultimately, the system only works if game-making is primarily a labor of love for at least some of the folks in the production line.
That said, two things could make it more profitable. First, if we kept making adventure games, I suspect we could shorten our development cycle. Probably we could get it down to something like five man-years a game. Second, if we could sell to portable devices (something that I think is plausible in the near future), I think we might be able to grow the revenue stream. Between these, maybe we could double profits? But, candidly, I can't say that I'd enjoy working full-time to endlessly churn out point-and-click adventures, even if it yielded $50,000 a year. I'm not sure I could generate creatively satisfying projects fast enough to keep myself busy, and I'd rather dip my toe into other genres.
We helped get Hero-U across the line on Kickstarter. Lets help Mark and Victor get Primordia greenlit on Steam!
THE TRICKSTER: You must be very excited at the prospect of your game being released in under a month. Is there anything else you’d like to say to the readers before we hand over to them to ask you questions of their own?
MARK: This is utterly shameless, but if you're interested in Primordia, please vote for us on Steam Greenlight (http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=108108057) and consider pre-ordering the game (http://wadjeteyegames.com/primordia). This is a labor of love, but I wouldn't mind an extra-large Christmas turkey.
VIC: Excited, yes. Anything more to say, no, but I'd be happy to answer some of your readers’ questions should they have any for me.
Got anything you want to ask Mark or Vic? The microphone is yours!