Archive for March, 2013

The conception of Deathfire

After I had put aside Thorvalla last year, I no longer had the urge to create some huge game world. The work load on that game would have been enormous, requiring us to build a team with over twenty people to get it done right. Needless to say that a team of that sort requires a tremendous financial commitment and the responsibility that comes with it, and somehow it no longer felt right.

I always loved to make games in an intimate environment. The games I consider my best were created with small teams, sometimes extremely small teams even. There is something to be said about having the agility of a small team and the ability to rely on your team members on a personal level, when they’re not around merely to fulfill a job obligation or, what’s even worse, point out to you that a certain task is not part of their job description. We made games like the Realms of Arkania series because we wanted to make these games. Each and every member on the team was totally invested, and it resulted in real friendships that extended way beyond the work space. We enjoyed each others’ companies and respected each others’ opinions while also relying on each person’s respective strengths and abilities. We were all in it together, and were all pulling for it.

I needed a concept that allowed me to start small and expand from there

It was around Christmas that I decided I wanted to go back to those roots. To bring a level of idealism back to the table that simply cannot be found in a project of a certain size. Therefore, I needed a concept that allowed me to start small and expand from there if fancy took me.

Every time I undertake a creative endeavor seriously, it is sparked by some kind of a… let’s call it “vision” for the lack of a better word. It has always been like that for me. Whether I’ve been thinking of the story for a new book to write, whether it was a song I was writing, an orchestral piece I was composing or a game I was developing. It always started with a singular spark that got me completely excited. It is usually easy for me to separate short-lived ideas from real inspirations. The difference is time. When I have a true inspiration it will linger with me and refuse to go away. Almost, like a love affair. For days. Every free minute, it will pop back into my head uninvited and it will beg to be explored, fleshed out more and expanded upon. If this is still the case with an idea after a week or so, I know that I have found something lasting. Something that truly intrigues me and wasn’t just a short-lived idea, a fad, essentially.

So, when I had this vision in my head around Christmas, it kept occupying my thoughts throughout the holiday season, and afterwards I knew that this is something I really wanted to do. Thus the concept of Deathfire was born.


Wood Elf portrait from our Character Generation

The vision I had seen in my mind’s eye was a role-playing game game that was electric and right in your face with action. Instantly, I knew that the only way to make this happen was with a first-person view, where the player is right in the thick of things.

While I love the artistic possibilities that isometric games afford us, there are a few drawbacks that made me dismiss the approach offhandedly. For one, the amount of work that is required to make a solid isometric game of any size is enormous, but what’s more, in this case in particular, is the distance it creates between the player and the game. In an isometric game you are always an observer. No matter how well it was done, every isometric game I have played has a God-like quality to it, where I am the master moving chess pieces around, typically without too much emotion involved. This is great for a lot of games and has tremendous tactical advantages for the player, but for Deathfire I want something that is a bit more gripping. Like reading a good thriller, my idea is to create a real-time game in which the player is fully invested, where he feels the environment, where he feels the pressure, the suspense and the menace. It may not give the player the opportunity to strategize and analyze a situation in too much detail before on ogre’s spiked club comes smashing down on his head. Instead, it replaces the moment with an incredibly visceral experience that can range from startling the player all the way to downright frightening him when foreshadowed properly.

The player should feel the pressure, the suspense and the menace

This basic idea stayed with me all over Christmas, as I mentioned, and I began to flesh it out more, collect ideas, and to create a list of things I do want to achieve with the game. In January, right after I returned from my annual CES pilgrimage, we began working on the project in earnest and it has grown quite a bit since then. No doubt, in part, because I have become obsessed with it. Literally.

I’ve had experiences like this in past, and while it may sound cool, it really isn’t, because in real life this means that I suddenly tend to forget doing my chores, like paying the bills, taking out the trash and even eating. My head is constantly thinking about various things related to the game, whether it is some idea I need to write down before I forget it – yes, I do keep a writer’s journal in case you were wondering – or some cool idea for artwork that comes to my mind. Most of the time, however, it is related to some programming issue I am working on at that particular moment. It is truly an obsession and I often walk around the house like a sleepwalker, completely lost in thoughts about my work – much to the dismay of my wife and son at times. So, this is definitely something I have to work on, because it is very destructive as I’ve learned in the past. (I remember when we developed Drachen von Laas, Hans-Jürgen Brändle and I would literally lock ourselves in my apartment for weeks at a time and work on the game for 16 hours a day, every day.) On the other hand, it is exciting for me feel the rush that I get from this project in particular. It just feels right. It is the right game. I can feel it.

Deathfire is a first-person, party-based, real-time role-playing game with a focus on the story

So, to give you a bit of a better understanding what we’re trying to do with Deathfire, here are few cornerstones that I plan to have in the game.

Running in a first-person view, it is a party-based real-time role-playing game with a focus on the story. It is not an open world design. Instead, it is very focussed to create maximum impact for the player. Therefore, we will very tightly control the environment the player moves through so that we can manipulate it as best as possible. This also means that it is a stepped role-playing game, by which I mean that there will be no free roaming the 3D environment. The player will take one step at a time as he explores the world. Not only does this help us to maintain a high level of quality in the overall experience, but it is in many ways also more reminiscent of many traditional pen&paper games where you’d use graph paper to map out the game.

Our intentions are to push the envelope on what has been done with stepped role-playing games in the past

When we think of first-person stepped role-playing games, two candidates come to mind, immediately, I think. The first one is Dungeon Master, the granddaddy of all real-time first-person roleplaying games, and the second one would be the games in the Wizardry series. Deathfire will be like neither of them. It will be so much more. It will be as gripping as Dungeon Master – or Grimrock if you’re not old enough to have played the original Dungeon Master upon which it was based – but it will have the depth of a real role-playing game, putting it more in line with the Wizardy games, perhaps. It will be a completely amped up affair. It will be more intense and deeper than either of these games. We have completed the character system design at this point and I can tell you that there are enough character attributes and stats to rival the Realms of Arkania games. Well, not exactly, but we’re not too far away from its depth. Our intentions are to push the envelope on what has been done with stepped role-playing games in the past. I feel that there is a huge untapped potential how that gaming experience can be enhanced.

Think of it this way, if there’s an earthquake, in most stepped genre games you would see the screen shake and that’s about it. In the case of Deathfire, I want this to become a much more gripping event where you will see rocks shake loose, where dust clouds will form and debris will rain down from the ceiling. Characters will react to it, voice their disapproval and fear, based on their stats, or urge the others to move along before everything caves in. On the whole, I want it to become an experience that is every bit as vibrant and alive as it is dangerous and adventurous.


In addition, I wanted to mention real quick that we have also expanded the Deathfire team. André Taulien has joined the team and if the name sounds familiar, it should. André was one of the artists on Shadows over Riva and, like Marian, he worked on the Divine Divinity series. With his skills and the additional manpower, we will be able to bring Deathfire to life even better, and it feels great to be back in the game with a group of people that I’ve worked with before.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

I am certain it has not escaped your notice over the past few months that I’ve been working on some game-related things lately. I am sure my posts and tweets about Unity were a dead give-away.

Well, I have decided that it may be time for me to share with you some of the things I’m doing, because with every new day that I am working on my current project, I get more excited about it. As you may have guessed, I am working on a new role-playing game. I have to point out, however, that it has nothing to do with Thorvalla, the project I tried to Kickstart a few months ago. Thorvalla is dead and off the table. There was not nearly enough interest and support for the concept to make it happen, so that continuing on would have been a fruitless endeavor. Instead, I decided to learn from the experience as a whole and move forward.

Deathfire logo

The new game I am working on is called Deathfire… for now. It is kind of a project title currently, but the longer we’ve been using it, the more it grew on us and there is actually a chance we may use it for the final game. We’ll have to wait and see. There’s going to be a lot of water going under there until we cross that bridge.

There are currently three people working on Deathfire. Marian Arnold is the lead artist on the project. Marian used to work for my old company Attic, just after we released Shadows over Riva, and he has a pretty long gaming history himself, working on games, such as the Divine Divinity series. What’s even more important, however, is that he is a complete role-playing buff and immediately jumped at the occasion when I approached him with this idea. Being such an avid role player, he often serves as a sounding board for me, too, while I design the game and bounce ideas off him. Oftentimes he comes back to me with comments, such as “We could do this and then do that on top of it, making it work even better.” So, all in all, I feel that Marian is a great complement for myself, forcing me to think, re-think and try harder all the time. The many code rewrites I had to do to try out and/or accommodate some of our cumulative ideas are certainly testament to that.

Then, there is Thu-Lieu Pham, who is also lending her artistic abilities to the project. Lieu is a classically trained illustrator and graphic designer, and her strengths lie squarely in the domain that oftentimes makes fantasy games so mesmerizing — the tantalizing look of characters and scenes. Many of you may recall the paintings she did for Thorvalla, such as the iconic dragon ship at sea scene that we used as the game’s main visual hook, as well as the female Viking character.

Currently, Lieu is busy drawing character portraits for Deathfire’s Character Generation. Instead of creating them in 3D, we decided early on to try and capture the look of Golden Era role-playing games. The covers by Larry Elmore, Clyde Caldwell, Brom, and Jeff Easley come to mind, right away. Call me old-school, but to me this kind of vivid imagery and paintbrush work is much more inspirational and engaging than a rendered 3D character.

And then, there is me. I am currently serving double-duty, designing and programming Deathfire. It is marvelously invigorating, I can tell you that, and it reminds me of the good old days when Hans-Jürgen Brändle, Jochen Hamma and I were making games such as Drachen von Laas, Spirit of Adventure or Blade of Destiny, the first of the Realms of Arkania games, which were, to a large degree, just the three of us working triple-duties, designing, programming and often also illustrating these games. Working with such a small team on Deathfire appeals to me very much and I am enjoying myself, perhaps just a little too much.

I’ve decided from the outset that I will be using Unity3D for the game. As you can tell from previous posts and some of my tweets, I have become a big Unity fan, as it puts all the right development tools at my disposal at a price point and level of quality that is unbeatable. The package has not let me down once so far – though I would like to say that 3D object import could be improved quite a bit.

Deathfire is using a first-person 3D role-playing environment, and I am glad that we can rely on the muscle of Unity to make sure that we do not have to limit ourselves because the technology can’t keep up. Unity may not be a bleeding edge engine, but it can sure play ball with the best of them, and the fact that it is so incredibly well thought-through, makes developing with Unity a lot of fun. More importantly, we can focus on creating the game, instead of the technology to run it on.

I know, you may have a lot of questions now, about the game. What, when, where, how… I’ll get to all that some time later down the line. For now, however, I simply want you to let the info sink in, and hopefully you’ll be as excited as we are. Visit this blog regularly. I plan on sharing more of Deathfire with you as time goes on. In fact, after some deliberation, I’ve decided that I will cover the development process like a production diary of sorts, right here on my blog. And also, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter (@GuidoHenkel) for a constant vibe-meter as to what I am up to.

Talk to you again soon…

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Recently I read the headline that the CEO of Sony Pictures thinks UltraViolet needs improvement. The headline made me chuckle because I could have told them that two years ago. In fact I pointed it out in reviews back then. These days I do not even bother to check for UltraViolet, because to this date still, it is completely useless. What made me chuckle is also the fact, %%% % % % that Sony CEO Michael Lyndon made the comments for all the wrong reasons. The fact that “it’s not easy enough to use” is not the reason UltraViolet fails and despite what he says, This is not the “early days.” Those were two years ago. Technology is moving fast, as we all know, and two years are a lifetime in the digital domain. During this time period, UltraViolet could have – and should have – matured into a solid platform. It didn’t, because unless it goes through a complete paradigm shift, it simply can’t.

The real problem with UltraViolet, from my point of view, is not so much its technical implementation but the actual presumptions the underlying paradigm makes. UltraViolet is a streaming video format for mobile platforms, and as such it has very limited value and even less applications.

Even though we live in a world where everyone is connected and always-on, watching a streaming movie requires a bit more than an Internet connection. It requires a broadband connection that is always-on, and that’s where the problems start.

My iPad, for example is Wifi enabled but has no 3G, which means that as soon as I leave the house, I’m disconnected, and without Internet connection, there’s no UltraViolet. Silly, I know. I really don’t watch movies on a tablet at home. That would be just weird. I have TVs around the house that have been installed for that very purpose, and I evidently bought a DVD or Blu-Ray Disc, because that’s where I got my UltraViolet copy from, so why would I want to view a movie in an inferior format riddled with compression artifacts and in low resolution when I could instead watch it in 1080p on a large TV screen?

So, the moment I *would* be interested in watching a movie on my tablet is the very moment that UltraViolet disconnects and becomes unavailable. Epic fail! The logic that this would make sense or would even remotely be attractive for consumers boggles the mind and it stuns me that Hollywood executives are evidently still not seeing the real problem with UltraViolet.

But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that I wanted to watch an UltraViolet movie on my iPhone. Not sure why anyone would want to watch a movie on such a tiny screen, but fair enough, let’s just say…

The problem I have now is that for some time already phone carriers have begun charging for bandwidth for the most part. The glory days when the iPhone was first introduced and you could get unlimited Internet and Data on your phone for 30 dollars a month are long gone. As a result I am very reluctant to stream a 1 gigabyte movie to my phone, exhausting my monthly data plan allotment in the process. But even you have unlimited data and don’t mind to pay through the nose for it, you still have to content that many carriers are throttling the bandwidth on many of these data plans. The result is degrading the quality of your video even further as it streams. Not to mention that connectivity or download speed are far from being guaranteed. Every AT&T user can tell you that. So once again, UltraViolet’s proposition and appeal falls flat in its face.

But let’s put all that aside for a moment, and let’s just assume I am still not deterred and really, really want to watch an UltraViolet movie on my iPhone. The problem now is that with all the crowd noise around me, it is impossible to actually hear the movie. (How I wish the guy yelling into his cell phone so you can hear it all across the airport would just shut up… yeah, you know the type.) Sure, I could use headphones or earbuds, but sadly I refuse to turn myself into a Borg just yet, and do not enjoy wearing an earpiece, or maybe, I simply forgot them before I left the house. Since UltraViolet does not offer subtitles either, I am once again flat out of luck, and once again UltraViolet has no value to offer.

Ah, my stop just came up, twenty minutes into the movie, and I am asking myself why I even bothered trying to watch a movie on the go. I don’t know about you, but I rarely have two hours – the equivalent of the length of a typical Hollywood movie – available to me while I am on the go.

So, with all that in mind, is the failure of UltraViolet to connect, really surprising? It is clear to me that UltraViolet is simply a bad idea that has no practical real-world application as long as it does not offer digital download capabilities in addition to its streaming services, and adds basic accessibility factors such as subtitles to the mix. It was created in a bubble and sold to Hollywood studios as a technological illusion at a time when the studios had licked digital blood and were zealously looking for ever-growing opportunities to resell their catalogs. Well, it’s a pipe dream and it’s not going to go anywhere anytime soon.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail