Thursday, November 15, 2012

So 'U' want to be a Hero

Last year I was privileged enough to do a short interview with veteran adventure/RPG game designer Corey Cole. Corey is one half of the husband/wife design duo behind the eternally beloved ‘Quest for Glory’ series, an adventure/RPG gaming thoroughbred, first developed by Sierra Online in the early 90’s and running up to the final chapter, ‘Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire’, in 1998.

Quest for Glory was a potent cocktail of several gaming flavours that make it stick in the hearts of many golden era adventure gamers, and it’s a series that turned Lori and Corey Cole into cult figures amongst the retro gaming scene. One part point and click adventure and one part roleplay stat building, add to the mix a charming sense of humor and a beautifully realized game world that’s just begging to be explored, and you have an idea of why Quest for Glory is so fondly remembered. Play through these classics today and you can feel the genuine love that was poured into each title by the creators.

Lori and Corey have had a sizeable break from video game development since Quest for Glory V in 1998, but they have never forgotten their fans. The duo have always kept themselves open and engaging to the fan base, even running a website ‘The School for Heroes’ which acts as a spiritual successor to the QFG series, and shares the spirit of adventure instilled in the games they brought to life.

Enter early 2012. Tim Shafer and Ron Gilbert, legendary Lucasarts adventure game designers from the same era as Lori and Corey, launch their Kickstarter project for a brand new point and click adventure game. An classic gaming renaissance ensues. ‘Crowdfunding’ is a term that didn’t originate from the website ‘Kickstarter’, but the site has put it on the lips of classic PC gaming fans the world over. Kickstarter essentially connects creators and fans with no middle man. Voluntary contributors can donate dollars towards project proposals, giving indie game development a model with which it can stand on its own two legs, and for game designers which earned their ‘cult’ status in the adventure gaming golden age of the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s, crowdfunding gives them a new means to do what they love.

Lori and Corey launched their Kickstarter project, ‘Hero-U: A Rogue to Redemption’ on October 19th of this year. Essentially it is a brand new fantasy roleplaying adventure, instilled with the same fun and humour of The Quest for Glory series. As of this post they only have a few days left on the project funding period. Corey was kind enough to answer a few questions for me during the home stretch towards the development future of their new game.

Me: What sparked your return to game design?

A perfect storm of;

1. The rise of crowdfunding for games.
2. The success of recent adventure game projects on Kickstarter.
3. We had already started back into games by doing contract design for outside projects.
4. Making contact with Andrew Goulding to lead the programming.
5. Getting past some family issues that were eating up our time, and
6. Dropping out of World of Warcraft, which was taking the rest of our time.

From the information you've released on Hero-U it really seems to share the ‘tongue-in-cheek’ tone of the Quest for Glory series. Would you say this game is connected to that universe or is it more of a spiritual successor?

Yes.  Or maybe it's "and" rather than "or". We can't make a new Quest for Glory (no license), but our brains are wired into that Universe, so inevitably similar things will creep into Hero-U. As for the humour, my brain is wired that way too.  I see absurdity all around me and usually feel the need to comment on it.

Hero-U definitely seems to have that classic adventure/RPG aesthetic. Are there any more modern gaming sensibilities that you are incorporating into the game?

Well, it's our game, and we love tabletop role-playing, and that's what the "classic adventure/RPG aesthetic" is all about. We're using Unity for a platform-independent experience, and we're taking advantage of the increased memory and processing speed of current PC's. But instead of using that for ever-more-detailed 3D graphics and millions of polygons, we're packing a lot of that power into the artificial intelligence, character, and story side of the game.  And nice graphics too.

Aside from Lori and yourself, are any more of the ‘old guard’ from the Sierra days involved with Hero-U?

Not directly, but we're all supporting each other's projects.  The Leisure Suit Larry, SpaceVenture, and Moebius projects have all promoted Hero-U recently, and we're sending people their way.  We all feel that building a bigger audience for modern adventure games is good for everyone – us and the players.

Crowd sourced funding is clearly ideal for veteran game designers with cult followings such as yourself. How is it different working independently without a publisher like Sierra behind you? Is there anything you miss about the traditional game development structure?
With a publisher, you propose a game, nothing happens for a while, then they either say "Yes" or "No" – with "No" much more common.  Even when they say "Yes", they might decide to cancel the project any time during development.  With crowd-funding, things are much more transparent.  You can see the momentum build.  But in a sense that also makes the process more stressful – Until the project passes its goal, you have to keep wondering, "Will we make it?"

As for working independently, we've done that before.  For the Shannara project, we set up an office in Oakhurst, and worked with artists around the world (as well as a few local ones). Most of our contact with Legend Entertainment was remote.

Hero-U will be similar. Even though we don't have a publisher breathing down our necks, and we know that funding won't be cancelled, we have to answer to our backers. We will have complete transparency about the process and progress, and we will pay close attention to suggestions from the people who supported our new game from the beginning.

What has changed about game development since you last worked on a Quest for Glory title?

It's split into two paths. On the one, AAA titles have gotten completely ridiculous. They have teams of hundreds, spend years developing a game, spend tens of millions of dollars on development, and that much or more on promotion. The top games sell millions of copies, and most of the rest lose money.

We saw the beginnings of that with Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire. I think it started with a $1.5 million budget and an 18-month development cycle. It ended up taking more than twice the time and three times the original budget, as we kept developing new 3D technology, trying and eliminating MMO functionality, and so on. Much of the expense was necessary, and much was... well, "wasted" is too strong a term, since we learned a lot from every experiment.

On the other path are the indie games. Many are made by young developers living with their parents, and most are on total shoestring budgets. Our budget for Hero-U looks more like an indie than an AAA budget, but we will be making at least an "A" level of game. It's too small to interest a traditional publisher, but it's a big ask for fans to support.      

I think there's a strong need for "in-between" games costing between $100K and $1M to develop. Players want a smooth, attractive game experience, and they don't necessarily need vast 3D worlds and finely tuned multiplayer automatic weapon fire in those games. I want to see more mid-range, high-quality games, particularly ones that explore different genres and game styles than the big blockbuster titles.

Where did the concept for Hero-U begin? Did you have a story you wanted tell and built mechanics around it or vice versa?

Ah, origin stories.  "In the beginning..."

Ok, you could point to lots of antecedents. Lori was a schoolteacher before she became a game designer. Our "Fantasy Guild" (homebrew rules system that led to the Quest for Glory skill and spell system) campaign featured "The School of Harad Knox". We had a "correspondence school for adventurers" in Quest for Glory.
But more recently, the idea of the school came from a young adult novel Lori started on with Mishell Baker.  They created the How To Be A Hero site to support it. Later, I worked with Lori on the successor site,  Hero-U is our project to make the school more game-like and available to many more players.  We upgraded to a "University" to make the game feel more adult.

Which aspect of Hero-U are you most excited for your fans to experience?

Exploring the catacombs, and the trickiness-based tactical combat, is going to be a lot of fun. But the main thing that Hero-U offers is more subtle. Everyone will experience the story differently as the result of their decisions. The game will feel as though we tailored it for each individual player. In a sense, we're doing just that.

This isn't some generic throw-away story to act as an excuse for the game play.  The story and characters are a major part of what makes the game.  Players will immerse themselves and become part of the story.

Where do the development rights to Quest for Glory lie now days? Could you have branded Hero-U as a new QFG title, or were you more interested in keeping some distance from that series due to game design changes in Hero-U?

Activision owns the Quest for Glory rights since the acquired Sierra. We could not do a new (or remade) Quest for Glory game without first obtaining a license. We've heard from three companies that have tried to get that license, but could not get an answer from Activision. The last word was that Activision executives are deciding on a future policy for their adventure game titles. They might reactivate them in-house, license them out, sell the rights, or continue to sit on them.
Earlier this year, Activision authorized to sell a collection with all five Quest for Glory games, plus the original EGA version of QfG1.  We no longer get royalties from the games, but we're delighted that they're back "in print" and that new players can experience our games.
Since we could not do a Quest for Glory game, we are not trying to make a clone of one. Certain things are common, such as the mix of adventure and role-playing, the strong emphasis on characters and story, etc. If you look at it that way, I guess you would say that Atlas Shrugged is to Moby Dick. J  As with novels, the computer adventure game genre allows for a wide variety of stories and styles.
Of course, we're closer to Quest for Glory than those examples. All Stephen King novels feel as though they came from the same pen.  Hero-U is set in Marete, our world's analogue of Crete, a location last seen in Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire. There are reasons for the setting, but we probably could have placed the school in Iberia with similar results. We set it on Marete as a nod to our fans and because we "know" that area inside-out from previous game research.
But we have a different type of story to tell this time. Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption is all about a particular Rogue, Shawn O'Conner, and his search for redemption... or power.  We let the player choose his path. It's a coming-of-age story, and your character will change dramatically during the course of it.  Nominally, Quest for Glory 1 was also a coming-of-age story, but the Hero really didn't change much other than in stats and skills. Shawn will experience real character growth in the player's hands.

In terms of your plans for Hero-U, do you think this game will be the first in a series, or are there other gaming projects you’re interested in pursuing after this one?
We want to make it the beginning of a series. Your actions in one game will affect the next, but you will play a different character in each story. The second game revolves around a female Wizard with a completely different background, motivations, and personality from Shawn.

How do you feel about the current independent game development movement?
It's exciting. The challenge is for all of these indie games to get noticed. There is also an issue in that a lot of them are what a professional developer would consider throw-away prototypes. They may be unfinished, unpolished, or just plain bad. It can be really hard to tell the difference.
Maybe what we need is an objective (probably with some subjective points) game rating system. Two excellent blogs ( and are devoted to exhaustively analysing classic RPG's and adventure games respectively. We need something like that for current games.

Most of the game trade press either prints press releases as though they were articles, or has intimate carnal relations with the games from the biggest publishers and the largest advertising and slush fund budgets. You can get a good anecdotal idea of some current games from less biased sites such as, but it's necessarily incomplete.
I'd like to see an independent site with a huge database of games classified by multiple different criteria, and with lots of fan and critic ratings.  I guess comes closest among the sites I've seen, but they could use a lot more ratings and reviews. I'm also not sure how much attention they pay to indie games from small developers.  Few players = few ratings.

You’ve previously stated that you’re interested in making more thoughtful, challenging and less violent gameplay mechanics. Is Hero-U a good representation of this?

Yes. Combat is turn-based, so there is no twitch action in the game. Even Quest for Glory had real-time combat, and some players found it frustrating. We do have combat, but it's presented as a puzzle or problem, rather than a violent fight. Hero-U is suspenseful, not gory. And the story is about becoming a Hero, or consciously choosing to do non-Heroic things. We reward thoughtful actions and good decisions.

Many classic adventure game designers are jumping back into development via crowd sourcing like Kickstarter. Who else from the Sierra Online days would you like to see launch a new project, or which classic series would you love to see revived?
Well, it would be great to see Ron Gilbert make a new game. Of course, he's working with Tim Shafer on Double Fine Adventure, so that may fulfil that goal.
We had a pretty small cadre of Sierra designers, and most of them have already had successful Kickstarters – Al Lowe, Josh Mandel, Scott Murphy, Mark Crowe, and Jane Jensen. The obvious missing one is Roberta Williams. You never know though – She has always had the story-teller's itch and might decide to make a comeback.
Jim Walls is in his 70's, and probably not interested in making more games. That pretty much covers the Sierra designers most people have heard of.

If there are younger gamers reading this, that might not have ever played your classic adventure/RPG’s, how would you convince them to get behind the Hero-U Kickstarter?
Ask them, "Did you love Harry Potter? Or Lord of the Rings? How about Brave?" We're making a story telling game that combines that type of heroism and fantasy elements. Like "The Hobbit", Shawn O'Conner is a relatively unimportant person until he finds himself thrust into the midst of adventure and given the chance to be a Hero or a scoundrel.
Hero-U is unlike most current games, in that our focus is not on violent action or fast reflexes. It's like reading a good book or playing a board game with friends – Slower-paced, but just as much drama and suspense. Humor too, because good dramas are better with some humor in between the tension.

Do you have a launch window in mind for Hero-U?
There should be some tall enough buildings in San Francisco if the Kickstarter fails... Oh, you mean for the game!  We're targeting October 2013. Our smaller budget means we should be able to get the game out in less than a year; in fact we almost have to do that unless we get additional funding during development. The goal is to make the game relatively modest in scope – All of the action takes place in the school and catacombs – but gigantic in story, characterization, and depth of game play.

Hero-U's funding period ends November 20th. If you're reading this and you love classic adventure/roleplay gaming you can make your pledge on the Hero-U Kickstarter page right now.

Friday, April 27, 2012

State of (free to) play

Free to play is the new black, it seems. No longer associated with bad Korean MMO's, and cheap, simple flash games, free to play is really starting to hit its stride. There is an amazing amount of triple-a quality F2P games out there now, and many more in the pipeline. What has caused this seemingly sudden influx of F2P titles? To me it seems that a few strong games paved the way, proving that there was a burgeoning audience that were willing to pay for their games in small amounts at a time, via micro-transactions, and since the model has been proven effective, a lot of other publishers are trying to replicate the success of games like Lord of the Rings Online and Team Fortress 2.

But what does this mean for the gaming industry at large? Is the free to play model a direction that the industry is going to move towards perpetually, and every game will cease to be an iteration, and become more of a service, in which players have to pick and choose what they would like to pay for, smorgasbord style? I don't think so. I think there will always be room for both. There can be no complaints about the current crop of F2P games. There is a vast amount of free gameplay out there at the moment, thousands of hours that anyone can download and try without paying a cent.

Therein lies the only hitch in all this free to play goodness that I can see; there is just so many free to play games out there, and many more coming, that are wholly dependent on strong player communities, and every time a new one is released, is it sapping the player base from other existing games? When Blacklight Retribution and Tribes Ascend hit the web, does that mean an exodus of players from the Team Fortress 2 community? Is there just going to be so many F2P games out there down the track, so that no single game can grow a good, strong multiplayer community, each new game diluting the pool even further? I think some games will swim, and others will sink. The battle for free to play supremacy is going to get nasty, and if a game isn't at 100% at launch, as many games aren't, then they run the risk of not capturing that dedicated fan-base, and dissolving into un-patched, and unsupported obscurity. Maybe a champion will rise, much like World of Warcraft did for MMO's a few years back, and become the super-success that other developers strive to replicate. Only time will tell.

If you are interested in some free to play goodness, here are some of my current favorites that you can download right now, free!

Lord of the Rings Online - A vast, fantastic MMO RPG. This one came out in 2007, and I think it's aging nicely. Solid visuals, great atmosphere, and a gift from Vala for Tolkein fans. This thing takes it Ring's lore very seriously. You can play pretty well up to the mid level 20's without any real need to spend money, but with ponies, cool cosmetic gear and extra bag slots, they make it mighty tempting.

Team Fortress 2 - Smooth, well presented shooter chaos. Class based team matches, a great sense of character, a very strong player base, and the hats, oh the hats. You need never spend a dollar to get some great gameplay out of this one. Refined shooter goodness. Can't recommend it enough.

Blacklight Retribution - I would love to recommend this, as it's a great looking futuristic shooter, with player and weapon customization, all done on the Unreal 3 engine, but as the game currently has no Australian servers, I can't join a game with a ping less than 400ms, making the game essentially unplayable. The developer, Zombie Games, is promising Aussie support soon.

Tribes Ascend - Newly released sequel to the classic Tribes series. I'm heavily into this one at the moment. Great sense of speed and movement, thanks to the skiing mechanics and jetpack. Sci-fi setting, team based shooter gameplay, huge levels; a classic reborn.

 Age of Empires Online - An online RTS, with some persistent city building mechanics thrown in. This game had an underwhelming launch for some reason, but I pick it up from time to time, and I'm transported back to 1997, when I fell in love with the original Age of Empires. This is a great little game with a nice art style and some good RTS gameplay.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Devil's dopamine

Diablo 3 is finally upon us, and with under a month to go until it's launch, it feels further away to me than ever. The level of 'schoolgirl giddiness' is reaching fever point. The game has been eleven years coming, and for me it can't get here soon enough.

The thing about Diablo to me is that it's a very neatly perfected experience. In the same way that Call of Duty is to shooter fans, Diablo knows exactly how to push the hack 'n slash RPG buttons. It has such a clearly defined, and deceptively simple gameplay rhetoric, that to someone who's never played, and is just watching you over your shoulder, the cycle of play can seem mind numbingly boring.

This is the genius of Diablo's design. It bypasses the critical lobes and strikes right to the brains pleasure centers with trickles of warm dopamine. It's an almost pure grind and reward based system, and if you're the kind of gamer that's susceptible to this kind of thing, it's like a digital drug.

So just when you might have finally weened yourself from Blizzards other gaming addiction of choice, World of Warcraft, Diablo 3 is arriving. Time to take that week off from work, (just sight personal reasons and hopefully the boss will ask no more questions), stock up the pantry with some high protein, easy to prepare food rations, and fill the fridge with your favorite caffeine laced, high sugar carbonated drink, and get ready to descend into a state of gaming bliss.

If you can't wait a month, and God knows, I'm finding it tough, here is a list of games that know how to dangle that 'virtual candy' in front of you, and illicit the same kind of reward based, psychotropic response that Diablo does so well...

Titan Quest, 2006 - Diablo's sexy cousin. Rinse and repeat Diablo gameplay, with a mythical, classical antiquity vibe. You'll come for the delicious graphics (even by today's standards), and stay for the three skillpoints you get every level, and random rewards like 'Cleopatra's swift gladius of flame'.

Call of Duty, 2007 forward
- Play any Call of Duty multiplayer post CoD 4: Modern Warfare, and you will find it hard to stop. Long after you should have become sick of the levels, and the refined shooter gameplay, the perk and gun unlock system will keep you playing, because you just really need the new scope and paint-job for the G36C!

Burnout Paradise, 2008 - I'm not a huge racing game fan, I dabble, but I've never reached the fanatical level that games like Forza or Gran Turismo seem to demand from their fans (both of which could easily be put on this list), but I do have a special place in my heart for this racing gem. It gives you a beautiful, colorful open world city to explore, great arcade racing mechanics, nice sountrack and cool, slick presentation, and then dangles these awesome car rewards in front of you. You know you don't need to unlock every car... but you need to unlock every car!

Dawn of War II, 2009 - It's hard not to love the Warhammer 40k universe. I've never played the tabletop game, just admired it from afar, and Dawn of War II stands as it's best representation in video-game form, or so I'm told from Warhammer players. I loved it. A great strategy/RPG hybrid, and upon completing every mission you get to level up your badass space marines, and you get wargear, oh the wargear! Chainswords, huge power hammers, massive plasma guns; nothing feels better than the first time you can don your squad commander in some mean looking terminator armor.

World of Warcraft, 2004 - I don't need to say much about this one. Even if you've never played it, reputation alone points to it's addictive qualities. This is the game that has had me doing some of the most ridiculous, tedious things in game, just to get some kind of carefully calculated, dopamine inducing reward. I've spent countless hours completing in-game achievements, just so I can add the title 'the explorer', or 'the Argent Champion' to my character. When you are in the throws of a serious WoW binge, you just know your life will be content and complete if you can just unlock that black proto-drake, but it's never enough. There is always something else around the corner that you know your little character is just going to 'need'. WoW turns you into a grown man that patiently sits around trying to 'dress up' your character to be the meanest and look the coolest, like a six year old girl dressing up her Barbie dolls. It's sad, it's silly, but I love it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The princess and the planet

Few works of science fiction writing from the very early twentieth century are as seminal as Edgar Rice Burroughs 'A Princess of Mars'. The pulp classic was first published in 1917, before Burrows made his most famous creation, Tarzan, and before high-concept, adventure-sci-fi had grown all of those wonderful cliches' we enjoy today. A Princess of Mars has been sighted as a fundamental inspiration for science fiction writers all through the 20th century and up until today. Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and countless others all read Princess growing up, sewing the seed of fascination with science fiction. Even many scientists and futurists, people who would go on to drive humanities exploration of space and search for extraterrestrial life, sight the book as a childhood inspiration.

The plot is revolutionary in terms of when it was written, and generates sci-fi staples that have been seen in everything from books and movies to video games ever since. It centers around John Carter, an American confederate civil war veteran, who finds himself transported to Mars after entering a mysterious cave. He is then embroiled in a war between two alien factions, falls in love, and saves a civilization. The book is an adventure in the grand tradition, but very much science fiction at its core, and the first in a series of books, known as the 'Barsoom' series.

There have, of course, been several attempts at a film adaptation over the years since the book became a classic of the genre. Currently Walt Disney Pictures is set to release its big budget take on A Princess of Mars later this year. See trailer below.

It's interesting to see that the words 'Princess' and 'Mars' are nowhere to be seen in the trailer for Disney's latest adaptation. As the story circling the internet goes, these words were very carefully omitted by Disneys marketing department. They are slating the film as simply 'John Carter'. Their reasoning? They don't want to alienate any sector of the film-going public. The marketing boffins over at Disney figure that no male 15 to 60 will go see a Disney movie with the word 'princess' in the title, and subsequently no female from the same broad age demographic will go see a movie with the word 'mars' in the title. I'm not saying this is sacrilege, be it slightly disrespectful to the fans of the book, and somewhat sexist, but I do think it's a strong inditement on the power that Hollywood marketing departments wield. John Carter is just a name, a blank, empty title for a movie that means nothing to anyone that has never read Princess, but that is preferable to Disney, as the books actual name might conjure images of cartoon princesses kissing frogs and tedious space battles in the minds of film-goers and 'turn them off'. I'm not saying they are wrong, they may be absolutely correct, but it would be very interesting if history could have a re-do, and the film could be released under the books original name, and the box-office taking could be compared.

I look forward to seeing the finished film, whatever the title may be, but Disneys compromising attitude does make me wonder how this adaptation is going to turn out. If they are ready to compromise on the title of the film what else have they compromised on, and potentially diluted along the way? Time, and the reception of the film by Barsoom series fans, will tell.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A polarizing element

Not since the likes of people such as Richard Dawkins, Barack Obama, George Lucas or maybe even Adolf Hitler, have I seen a person of celebrity notoriety as polarizing as Kevin Smith. You probably know Kevin Smith. Savant indie film maker, turned low-brow comedy laced-with-underlying-social-commentary movie writer/director/producer, turned twitter icon, turned podcaster, turned podcasting network runner, turned internet radio host. That's without mentioning his comic book work and the hinted at forthcoming television talk show. Kevin Smith, after his two decades in show business, almost has to have made a bleep on any pop-culture aficionado's radar in some kind of context since his indie film project 'Clerks' hit it big back in 1994.

Smith's film work is varied, funny, relatable and speaks to a generation in a way that movies from film makers like John Hughes or Cameron Crowe might have in their heyday. Despite his commercial and critical success, however, Smith seems to divide audiences and critics alike, no matter what area of pop-culture he's trying to tackle. Listen to his morning internet radio show, 'Plus One Per Diem', and there's a good chance you'll hear Smith rile against bloggers, critics or journalists that have personally attacked him, miss-represented the truth, or conducted themselves in a way that warrants Smith himself to publicly tell them that they're 'bad at their jobs'. It seems that Kevin Smith has had a love/hate relationship with writers and journalists, despite a vast and enthusiastic fan base, his whole career. Most of the criticism seems to be focused on his ability as a director, his some might say 'shameless' self-promotion, or that he, somewhere along the line, has 'sold out' as a film maker. Smith seems to, at times, take it all in his stride, at other times he seems to take it all very personally. Never the less, it's interesting to hear a Hollywood film maker address his personal and professional criticisms straight from the horses mouth, as it were.

Enter the January 2011 Sundance Film Festival, held in Park City, Utah. If Smith detractors had some things to say about the man before, they certainly did after his announcements there. Smith's latest film 'Red State' debuted at Sundance, and so did Smith's public plan for the release of the movie. Leading up to the festival Smith had stated that he would auction the rights to his movie to the highest bidding distributor, but following the Sundance screening, Smith announced on stage that he was going to self-distribute the picture, sending opinions and speculation over the whole project into overdrive. 'Kevin Smith was imploding' was one notorious opinion that was circling the internet. Distributors that were at the screening were vocally unhappy, the internet seemed to swell with Smith criticism, and there was a growing opinion that Smith had 'alienated' Hollywood. In all the controversy it was almost easy to forget that Red State itself was a genuinely interesting looking film, it looked like a major departure from everything Smith had previously written and directed, and that there was an excited Kevin Smith and Smodcast fanbase that just wanted to see the movie.

The Red State saga, which is still playing out via Smodcast network podcasts, Kevin Smith blogs and Sir internet radio broadcasts, is interesting to say the least. It would have made pretty amazing documentary fodder if a doco film crew had been there along the way. Smith's self-distribution model is something that hasn't really been seen since the golden age of cinema, when film makers had to take their film's out on the road, touring from city to city, spreading the word like apostolate preachers. Kevin Smith buses all over America and Canada, other parts of the world to follow, showing his film and giving Q & A's afterwards, interacting with his fanbase on a personal level that Hollywood seems to have forgotten somewhere along the way. Smiths mantra is that there is no need to spend millions of dollars promoting a movie through standard channels; tv, billboards, radio et cetera. Instead he uses his podcast network, his websites and fan word of mouth to get promotion for Red State out there.

Personally, I don't really understand the level of criticism that's directed at Smith. It seems like a genuine way for a passionate artist to get his work to the people that want to see it, and I can't remember ever being so interested in the promotion of a film. It's been an entertaining experience in and of itself hearing the Red State saga play out via the Smodcast network. There have been dramas with foreign distributors setting up press screenings despite Smith vowing not to give his movie away to critics for free, creating some genuinely interesting talk from Smith himself. There are instances where Smith has publicly dressed down bloggers and film critics that have attacked him and Red State, something I have never heard a film maker do on the record. I've never even seen Red State but to a movie lover it's been very interesting to be privy to it's birth, adolescence and all the up's and down's along the way. I'm looking forward to when it finally reached maturity and gets a world-wide release so I can see it down here in Oz.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Demonic comic

Just in case a whole awesome supernatural webseries isn't enough, Ryan McCalla has released the first issue of the Inner Demons comic series, featuring beautiful art by local Aussie artist Rhys McDonald. It's dark, it's sexy, it's up now.

Check it out here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Face your demons

Just in case you missed it, I recently interviewed Tommy Larkin and Ryan McCalla, the two creative forces behind the upcoming 'Inner Demons' web series.

Next I got a chance to shoot a few questions at some of the actors behind the series. Three of them in fact. Mark Stevens, Tony Rahme and Tim Reuben, or as you will get to see them in the forthcoming first series; Mephisto, Blackout and Sparky.

What attracted you to acting?

Mark: The sum of a life of polemic experiences... this is what I do.

Tony: Ever since I was a kid, I played the lead role of Jonah in my school play in front of a crowd of hundreds, and I aced it. Ever since then, I've just
loved the idea of taking on a different character for a short time.

Tim: I've always wanted to act since I was a kid. I love the places it takes me and the challenges it presents me with.

How did you get involved with Inner Demons?

Mark: Casting call on StarNow(great site) to which I responded; Hello, My age precludes Me from applying directly for the only role I desire..... Mephisto. I do a thousand years in hell real good. Give me hell and I`ll give you a truly outstanding Mephisto. Regards, Mark.

A: It was through the StarNow website that I found the auditions - and after reading the concept and the short character bibliography, I thought it was role that suited me and applied for it.

Tim: I auditioned for Inner Demons soon after graduating from acting school. I was totally sold on the idea of playing a super hero and getting to teleport.

How was your initial approach to your character? Did your attitude towards the character change at all between script and performance?

One of admiration and empathy! That's not changed...

Tony: Surprisingly enough, my character and I have so much in common, it's beyond the joke. The physical structure, the core beliefs, even my characters job and the incident where he discovers his powers - these are all things that made me question whether Tommy or Ryan were in fact stalking me for some time before they made this character... All in good humor, of course.

Tim: I found the character quite quickly and have basically stuck with it. Tommy and Ryan's writing is often very detailed, which really helps you access
and deliver what they're looking for.

Do you have to spend a lot of time getting inside your character's skin, or is it an easy, natural process for you?

I have a method. I close my eyes, visualize the loop of infinity and allow the universe in. Click.

Tony: It's pretty easy, seeing as Blackout and I do have a lot in common. The only difficulty is toning my natural self down to suit the quiet nature of my character, when I am very much the extrovert.

I think of Sparky as a part of myself. I just find that fun playful part of myself and bring it out.

How is it working with Tommy and Ryan?

Motivating. You wanna work with them, they value our input. Gotta love a couple of guys following their dream.

Tony: Without trying to sound like a crawler, I would have to say freaking awesome! They're both patient; they know that the cast are not a bunch of mind readers; they're always willing to help out in any way shape and form - pretty much, they are the epitome of a couple of Top Blokes.

Great. They're both so informed about the technical aspects of film making that you feel you're in safe hands. They also are incredibly trusting and give us a lot of creative freedom.

Are you a horror fan?

Mark: Not particularly. Good story fan. Okay, with a dark thread......

Kind of and not really... Like I'd watch a horror movie, but it would really have to grab my attention. I'm probably more thriller than horror though.

Horror? Ahhhhh! I love the idea of horror movies but I get scared so easily. The last horror I went to see at the movies I had to sneak out of. I then snuck into Harry Potter. That's about all the horror I can handle.

If you can say without spoiling anything, do you have a favourite scene or moment from Inner Demons?

Mark: Seeing expressions on cast and crew faces after shooting very last scene of season 1... heh heh heh!

Can't really say... We have awesome actors all around, the directing and photography always looks perfect. But from what I've seen, I reckon the opening of Episode 3 would have to be my favorite so far.

I got to shoot an amazing fight scene against a stack of demons recently. I'd been training for a few weeks in Krav Maga which was so cool!

How do you feel about independent film in Australia? Is acting work abundant or pretty hard to find?

Mark: Love the personal input
associated with indie productions. Seems to be some salacious projects out there (for a character actor with a dark streak). Sites like StarNow are a gift...

It varies really... One minute there is more work than you can handle, next minute you're bartending for three months until your next gig.

I think Australia produces great film work, but it is hard to come by.

Are there any actors you could point at as big inspirations for you?

Mark: Mark Gattis, Johnny depp, Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Meryl Streep, Uma Thurman.

Yeah, several really; The old action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lungred - these boys were muscle heads that had to deliver pretty damned well on screen
. Hugo Weaving - after V for Vendetta, how can you NOT love him?! Hugh Jackman and Heath Ledger - some of our greatest national exports. And of course, Ed O'Neil for playing the best dad under the sun (Al Bundy in Married... With Children).

I'm inspired all the time, by not just actors. Lately I've been inspired by Moby, Bon Iver, Dayne Rathbone and Titus Andronicus. I love art that opens my perspective.

What's the funn
iest/strangest piece of direction you've received while filming Inner Demons?

Mark: To fall "gently" on the precious carpet at the Windsor Mansion....

I think my co
-star Tim Reuben (Sparky) may kill me for this; but it was when the crew told us to lie on the green screen, hug each other close and shake... Yeah, I know - kinky!

Tim: Shooting in front of a green screen can lead to some pretty funny situations. The other day we were shooting a scene where I had to lie on a green screen with Tony (Blackout). I'm sure on screen it will look amazing, but on the day it just felt like spooning.

What would be more of a dream role for you; an intense character study of a historical figure or a lead role in a super-hero blockbuster?

Mark: One that affords me a Will Smith type trailer. Luvvie!

Tony: I would probably have to go with the lead character in a super hero blockbuster - assuming it's not a box office flop. But hell, does not mean I would not like to try give the charact
er study a shot some day.

Tim: S
uper hero. Unless its a historical figure with super powers.

What's your favourite film of all time?

Mark: Eraserhead, David Lynch, 1977.

One film for ALL time?! That's not fair... But if I have to say anything; V For Vendetta - the fact that the protagonist is a well versed killing machine just locks it in for the winner.

Tied. Garden State and The Breakfast Club.

Do you have any parting wisdom for anyone interested in getting into acting?

Tony: Always remember that the only people who will ever say that you can't achieve your dreams are those who were afraid to chase their own.

I recommend training at an acting school. I trained at ACA but there are many great schools out there. I think that's the first important step into the industry today.

The first series of Inner Demons is currently in post production. It will be available via iTunes, YouTube, Blip Video and Vimeo upon release. Check out the series website for more information.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Roll credits...

Opening credit sequences are a part of movies that, thankfully, have evolved over time.

In the silver screen days they were something audiences had to suffer through; static text over a still frame, interminably long, crediting everyone and everything right down to the type of film used, before the audience had even had a taste of the movie to come.

The first evolution of film credits came in at the end of 'old Hollywood', in the late sixties to early seventies. Just a few of the more 'important' credits on opening (main cast, writer, director, producer etc.), the complete list of credits rolling at the end of the film. It was a move in the right direction. It avoided boring the audience before the movie had even begun.

Although there are some interesting credit sequences that you can point at throughout the seventies and eighties, the next and most important evolution of opening credits didn't come, in my opinion, until the mid-nineties with David Fincher's 'Se7en'. Fincher recruited a guy named Kyle Cooper to create the sequence. It was pretty revolutionary. Cooper's sequence set the mood of the film perfectly. It was like looking through the eyes of the demented serial killer that the Se7en's story was built around. It played more like a slick, dark, disturbing music video, with the cast and filmmaker credits throughout, in a font that looked as if it might have been carved manically with a razor blade. Add to this a seething, pumping remix of Nine Inch Nail's 'Closer' and the tone is set.

Cooper's sequence was truly game changing and often imitated, and he didn't stop there. His production company's have produced some of the most interesting and memorable title and montage sequences in film. There was the darkly apocalyptic opener for Zach Snyder's 'Dawn of the Dead' remake, and the cool intro to 'Spiderman 2' that showed the events of the first film in a stylistic, illustrated composition. His list of work is huge. Braveheart, The Mummy, Zoolander, Iron Man; even the opening sequence for AMC's 'The Walking Dead' series.

Kyle Cooper's mark on the film world is often understated, his influence overlooked. You might have never heard his name before, but its unlikely, if you love film as much as I do, that you haven't seen his work.

You can find the website for 'Prologue', Cooper's production company, here.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

New collaboration

I've never read the source material, and I know next to nothing about it, but when three incredible artists (David Fincher, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) come together on a project, this is the kind of thing you can get. Impressive trailer, amazing cover.

Fresh off of their collaboration on The Soical Network, the contemporary masters are back at work together again. I can't wait to see the finished product.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Interview with Corey Cole

A man that for any serious classic adventure gaming aficionado needs no introduction, Corey Cole, co-creator of the Quest for Glory series, agreed to do an interview with me recently. Corey was a chief programmer throughout the series and co-designed the games with his wife, Lori.

How did you get started at Sierra and how was is working there?

A friend we knew through science fiction conventions did contract animation work for Sierra. She had been in a meeting in which Ken Williams said he wanted an “expert tournament-level dungeonmaster” to create a new RPG for Sierra. Carolly thought of us and arranged a phone interview with Ken. When he asked, “Why should I hire you instead of some other designer?” I mentioned that I was an experienced programmer currently working on an Atari ST project. He immediately invited me to interview... not as a game designer, but as a programmer. After I had been at Sierra about six months, they talked to Lori about designing the game.

Your game was unlike any previous Sierra adventure in that it was an adventure/rpg hybrid. Was there any trouble getting Sierra to green light that project?

Our champion was Guruka Singh Khalsa, Sierra’s first producer. He was hired based on things he had written as a fan. During a green light meeting including us and Guruka, Ken said, “I really don’t understand this game.” Guruka said something like, “It’s going to be a major hit,” and Ken left the meeting saying, “I like this game. It’s going to be a major hit.” It’s possible that Sierra might have cancelled the first game without that support; we’ll never know.

What would you say were your main influences for Quest for Glory?

The combat and skill development system was based on a paper RPG Lori and I ran (“Fantasy Guild”, unpublished). It took a lot of ideas from “Arizona D&D”, a D&D variant Lori had played in Phoenix. Computer game influences included Wizardry and maybe Rogue and Dungeonmaster (to a very small degree). My mantra was to simulate the experience of playing in a paper D&D game with an excellent dungeon master. I also talked about combining the best parts of computer RPG’s and adventure games. Since Sierra’s tools were optimized for adventure games, that made sense.

Do you play current any current rpg's? Have computer rpg's gone in a direction you expected?

I play World of Warcraft to the level of addiction. I haven’t played any recent computer RPG’s. We still get together with friends a few times a year to play AD&D 2nd edition, but I’m finding it less involving than I used to... I’ve replaced it with WoW. When people ask if we’ve thought about doing a Quest for Glory MMO, the answer is of course, “Yes,” but at this point we really feel that WoW is the MMO we would have hoped to make – It really exceeds expectations.

What do you think it would take to spark an adventure game renaissance?

Hard to say. Players are different today and much less patient. In the early CRPG days, players had to make their own maps on graph paper. Nobody would stand that today, but other aspects of adventures are almost as painful. The worst, in my mind, are puzzles that can only be solved by reading a walkthrough on the Internet. People used to buy hint books for this, but to me it’s just bad game design. So a start would be well designed, less frustrating games.

I understand that Telltale Games is doing very well with their games, so maybe there already is a renaissance. On the other hand, I can’t even solve their games without occasional Web searches. WoW has some similar issues with tough dungeon and raid encounters, but they’ve steadily made most of the quests easier and more accessible to average (and below average) players. Some people complain about this dumbing down the game, but I find it refreshing. I *like* being able to zip through a quest line and not have to spend hours searching for the right object or character to complete it. I hate “hunt the pixel” game mechanics and “try to read the designer’s mind” puzzles. We tried to fill Quest for Glory with reasonable, solvable puzzles... although I understand many players found the puzzles very difficult, so perhaps we made mistakes there too.

Would a re-imagining or sequel to the series interest you today? What would stay the same and what would you 'modernize'?

I don’t think it could get funded. What would be the business model that would attract a publisher or enough funding to make a high quality game? Certainly the graphics should be updated to modern standard... and that probably means 3D. I think we could make the combat more interesting, but at the same time I would probably reduce the amount of it. It would probably be a Web based game. I’d like to do an MMO, but that’s completely daunting, and I think that WoW and similar games have already addressed that space very well.

I’d actually see more point to doing a new Castle of Dr. Brain, probably for handhelds or Web based. I tried to push a project like that to Sierra, but management didn’t think a “brain game” would do well on consoles. That’s been disproved; the question is whether there is still room for such a game. I think there is. Of course, a Quest for Glory remake targeted at modern consoles could be a great idea also. I think there is a vast untapped market out there of people who want more intelligent games and less death and destruction. The question is whether there is a good way to find that audience and get them to try the game so they might buy it.

Fighter, magic user or thief?

I’m a Magic User by nature, but I also think the Thief game play is really fun and interesting. We didn’t do as much with Warriors as we might have – They were basically designed for people who wanted more straightforward game play. I like the way WoW has essentially given “spells” to Warriors, so they have as many options as other classes. In WoW, I play everything; my two main characters currently are a Night Elf Druid – I mostly play as a bear “tank” and occasionally as a healer – and an Undead Magic User. At level 80, I had a vast stable of characters of every role and most classes. No Warlock or Hunter, mostly because they seemed a little redundant with my Mage.

Which game of the series are you most happy with?

QG2, followed closely by QG4. Despite the occasional game crashing bugs (mostly caused by a memory leak we never fixed), my favorite is Quest for Glory 2: Trial By Fire. I think the setting was unique, the puzzles were good, and the storyline really carries through. The city mazes accomplished what we wanted – making the cities feel large and complex – but were too frustrating for players. The combat system works fairly well, with a good mix of simplicity and tactics.

Quest for Glory 3: Wages of War (or “Seekers of the Lost City”, since we had a copyright problem with the original name) probably has the best story line and most original setting. It’s a little light on puzzles. QG4: Shadows of Darkness was very buggy out the door, but most of the major bugs were fixed for the CD version. The voice acting on it (with John Rhys-Davies as the narrator) is fantastic. We also pulled off the atmosphere very well in that one. Young Frankenstein was an inspiration for the mixture of Gothic horror and comedy.

QG1: So You Want to Be a Hero (originally “Hero’s Quest”) gets an honorable mention for originality, as it set up the series and was the first real RPG / Adventure Game hybrid. Finally, QG5: Dragon Fire is the most epic game in the series. The artwork is gorgeous and the scope of the game – area to explore, quests, and story – is huge, yet I think very consistent and enjoyable. That’s hard to pull off with “huge”. And of course there is Chance Thomas’s fabulous sound track. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel the voice acting was up to par; some of the performances are too cartoony and over the top.

Actually music deserves its own mention, as we got fantastic compositions for all of the games – Mark Seibert developed a memorable theme for the first game. Mark also directed the music for Castle of Dr. Brain, which I think is amazing. Chris Braymen, Aubrey Hodges, and Rudy Helm also contributed some wonderful music to the series. Lori still likes to listen to Aubrey’s tracks while doing artwork, and we all had Chris’s QG2 harem theme on continuous loop for quite a while, especially while finalizing the design on QG2.

What is your name? What is your favourite colour? What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow? Were you or Lori the Monty Python fan?

I sometimes post as Erasmus, but there’s a lot of competition for that name. Zartan is another one I use sometimes; it’s just a gaming handle I used to use for early BBS roleplaying. Lori uses Fenrus (I think even in the games, we sometimes called him Fenrus and sometimes Fenris). Purple, of course. Or royal blue. Lori’s is teal/aquamarine. As for the swallow, I’d need a lot more data on species, size, and environmental conditions. Otherwise, the best I could give you would be a rough average (which I’d look up on the Web). Yes. I was the Firesign Theater fan.

Quest for Glory is an undeniable cult classic. Have you had any encounters with over enthusiastic (or scary) fans?

No. Sometimes they demand a bit much. We’re either slow with such responses, or never get to them. But in general, our fans are fantastic. They appreciate our work, and let us know about it (which feels really good), without demanding too much of our time. Of course, we voluntarily sink a huge number of hours every week into, which is sort of our interactive follow-up to the games, but has morphed into a more serious site on being a real-life hero and living a successful and productive life.

The biggest problems we had weren’t with fans, but with people who complained about things that weren’t really in the games. For example, a Wiccan complained about the stereotypical portrayal of witches in Baba Yaga. Of course, she isn’t a witch, but an Ogress, and she’s lifted straight from Russian fairy tales, on which we based her appearance, the chicken-footed hut, and the laser-eyed skulls (ok, that might have been a *slight* variation) on the fence. Another complaint came from a woman who felt we were anti-Jewish because the villain used a six-pointed star for his rituals. She didn’t bother to read up on the Seal of Solomon or the other research on which we based that.

The one that really floored us was the complaint about the black people in the opening scene of QG3 using poor English usage and strong accents. We based Uhura’s accent on a Jamaican co-worker from my first job in Vancouver. We wanted people to have strong personalities, so we did that with memorable accents. Stereotyping? Maybe, but that’s what you have to do in the limited conditions of a game or film. But what really got us was that we were the first people to come out with a game with strong black role models, and that really made use of an East African setting... but instead of being applauded, we were criticized for the way we did it. That woman should have been our champion, not our critic! Uhura, of course, was inspired by Star Trek, but particularly by a Star Trek filk song with the words, “My name in Swahili means ‘freedom’.”

Do you have any funny/interesting development stories?

Well, we had a lot of fun with some of the incidental jokes and cameos. Many of them were contributed by team members rather than scripted by Lori or me. “Silly Clowns Mode” in QG2 was there because Brian Hughes commented that a lot of business applications had non-functional menu items intended for later expansions. The original idea was to have a menu item that did absolutely nothing, but at some point we decided to use it by changing the silliness level of parts of the game. Brian also collaborated with Kenn Nishiuye to create the Saurus Repair shop at a dead end in the alleyways. We really wanted to keep it in the game, but had to cut it when we exceeded our disk space budget. That scene was revived by AGDI in their fan-developed QG2 VGA remake. I loved producing the voice recording for QG4. All of the actors were terrific to work with, especially John Rhys-Davies even after he discovered he had about five times as much material to record as he’d anticipated when he signed the contract. (He renegotiated and got some additional money, but it was still pretty small considering his stature, talent, and the amount of work he had to do.) One of the best moments was trying to decide on voices for Hans, Franz, and Ivan. Two of the actors wanted to “do Jack Nicholson”, and I decided that their versions were just far enough apart to use them both. They also adlibbed some very funny lines, as you can tell if you compare the screen text with the voices in their scenes. The best parts of development were when we really got everyone on the team pulling together to make something work great. Those became harder as the teams got larger, and spread out throughout the building, in the later games.

When you look back at your time building the Quest for Glory series do you think of that period fondly or is developing games more stressful than the uninitiated might realize?

Yes. It was an amazing opportunity for us, and it was a *lot* of work. We pulled many 60-hour and longer weeks during all of the games. QG5 was by far the worst in amount of unpaid overtime and sheer number of months spent in crunch mode, but I think we came out with a very good game that might have been weaker without the extra work. QG4 was frustrating, because the team was really burned out by the end of the project and it Sierra shipped it months too early. It needed much more QA, bug fix, and tuning time. Fortunately, Sierra management recognized the problem. While we were working on recording voices for the CD version, they assigned one of the programmers full-time to fixing bugs. That he spent almost a year at that, and the game still has a few serious flaws, is a testament to how much work remained undone before the first release.

Lori’s “favorite” anecdote about the stress of working on Quest for Glory was when Sierra installed a security system to get into each section of the building. One day she showed up at work and spent about five minutes trying to remember her access code to get in. Finally someone (breaking company rules) opened the door and let her in. This was during QG2 development, and we wrote some of the stress and paranoia of the time into the game script (including using anagrams of several of the managers as villains – Ad Avis, Khaveen, and al Skurva). It’s not that they were bad people, but the challenge of mixing a very creative process with trying to run a profitable business caused some very stressful moments.

Thanks for your time.