Sunday, August 21, 2011

Postmortem: Wadjet Eye's The Blackwell Convergence (Part I)

In Part I of this article, independent developer Dave Gilbert discusses what went right in the creation of adventure game sequel, The Blackwell Convergence.

The Blackwell games are point-and-click adventures made by my small indie game studio, Wadjet Eye Games, that center on an awkward writer named Rosangela ("Rosa") Blackwell who, upon her aunt's death, inherited the family ghost. The ghost in question is Joey Malone, a sardonic spirit from the 1930s. Their task is to assist lost souls and investigate supernatural goings on.

The Blackwell Convergence marks the third game in the series, and after three games I have realized that sequels are a very funny thing. On the one hand, you have the opportunity to enlarge a franchise and keep your characters in the public eye.

You've learned from your mistakes, and can apply your newfound knowledge to making the next game better. But you also run the big risk of alienating your old fans in the hope of courting new ones. Is change always good? Well, read on, and see how I fared.

What Went Right

1. Evolving Rosa's Character

When I wrote the first Blackwell game, my goal in creating Rosa Blackwell was to make a character who was hurt by her past and thrust into a situation she had no interest or desire to be in, but made the best of it and emerged a better person
because of it.

For the most part, people liked Rosa. They liked her awkwardness; they liked the fact that she was a relatable human being with flaws. Unfortunately, because of these qualities, they also found her very difficult to play. She was often so socially awkward that she became a hindrance rather than a help.

There was a key moment in the first Blackwell game where Rosa needs to speak to a woman named Nishanthi. Nishanthi is in the park, playing her flute in front of a crowd of onlookers. A normal person would just walk up to her and say "Excuse me" but Rosa is too shy to approach her in front of a crowd. Instead, you have to solve a puzzle in order to draw Nishanthi away from the crowd so Rosa is comfortable enough to talk to her.

As a character study, it worked. It's a natural thing for Rosa to do, and it really hammered home her sense of isolation and cemented her as a social misfit. But for a player involved in an interactive experience? It was frustrating. The original game was littered with moments like these and I wanted to fix that for Convergence.

But, how was I supposed to "fix" Rosa without completely changing her character? Simple. I didn't change her. I just put more focus on her positive traits than her negative ones. Rosa is the bookish sort. She's a writer and a reporter, which makes her intellectual and very observant. She knows when people are acting suspicious or when they are lying. This is a side of Rosa that we didn't see in the first game, so I made a point of showing these traits in the sequel.

Plus, the sequel takes place six months after the first, so she has had the time to mature and get used to her new supernatural abilities. Rosa is still very awkward in the game (and it provides the game with some of its more funny moments), but the awkwardness takes a back seat to her other qualities which get a chance to shine.

When the game was released, the change in Rosa's character was instantly noticed by reviewers. Some criticized it for being too much of a drastic change, while others felt it gave her a much-needed edge. I don't think either is entirely accurate. For me, she is still the same Rosa Blackwell -- just viewed from a different angle.

2. Using AGS as a Development Platform

It's a very good time to be an indie, as there are countless free third party tools that you can use for development. As for myself, I use AGS. Short for Adventure Game Studio, it is a third party engine geared toward the creation of old-school adventure games. It is a system that has been tested and refined for almost 10 years by many users, so it one of the more reliable tools out there.

Using a mature existing engine like AGS took a ton of the grunt work out of development. Being familiar with the system I was able to do 99% of the programming myself, saving a lot on development costs.

It also enabled me to prototype game events very quickly so I (and QA testers) was able to see what worked well. If something didn't work well, it was a quick matter to make adjustments. The only disadvantage of the system is the lack of portability, so Convergence will never play on a Mac anytime soon -- but the benefits more than made up for it.

3. The Change in Art Direction

A large advantage of having an episodic series is that you can reuse assets. Two games in, I had lots of art and animations for Rosa and Joey which we could use (for free!) in Convergence, as well as several backgrounds that could be reused (again, for free!). All we had to do was make sure the other characters and backgrounds were drawn in the same style for consistency.

The problem? The original artist who designed and animated the characters was not available. So, the quest was on to find an artist who could match his style. Unfortunately, that proved to be more difficult than I thought.

The first artist I hired tried valiantly for several months, but his designs -- while very good -- were just slightly off when placed next to the original sprites from Legacy. The heads were too big or the proportions were never quite right. In the end, he didn't feel he was up to the job and politely bowed out.

After spending ages trying to find an artist who could mimic the original style, I eventually came to the realization that I didn't have to. The purpose of reusing the original art was to save time and money, and that wasn't happening. So why not just cut my losses, redo the original designs to make them better?

I called upon a sprite artist and animator I had worked with before and asked him if he was up for it. He was, and within a week he sent me new designs for Rosa and Joey that not only looked good, they even surpassed the originals. Within a month they were fully animated and he was on the way to creating the rest of the cast. The problem was not only solved -- it never existed in the first place.

This improvement in art direction also extended to the backgrounds. The game needed nicer-looking backgrounds to go with the new characters, so I called upon an art studio to do the job. Working with a professional art studio to do the backgrounds was a totally new experience for me, and while they were more expensive than my usual freelancers the results were worth it.

The lesson learned? Sometimes starting over from scratch is the best way to go.

4. The Long Tail

I first game up with the idea for Blackwell in 2003, and I knew very quickly that there was no way I could plug the entire story into one game. There was too much back story, too many characters, and way too much... well, everything, for it all to be easily absorbed in one sitting.

I made it into an episodic series instead. The whole "episodic gaming" thing was kind of new at the time, but it made sense. You create one "episode" and you gain a following, which helps fund the second game. The second game then helps renew interest in the first, and so on...

This is a great system for getting games out the door, except of course for when it isn't. The biggest risk in undertaking an episodic series is that the first game might not sell well enough, so the series becomes dead in the water. Fortunately, this never came to pass. While a struggle at first, the first two games in the series have slowly earned a steady following, so by the time Convergence came around there were plenty of customers waiting in the wings to buy it.

The initial short-term sales of the game were more than satisfactory, but once that release buzz and initial flurry of sales winds down, something has to take its place. Which leads me to...

5. Stepping up Marketing Efforts

My knowledge of marketing and PR is only slightly greater than my knowledge of quantum physics.

For years I had relied on word-of-mouth to sell my games, and I didn't do any marketing or PR at all aside from sending the games to review sites and buying the occasional cheap banner ad. I was putting most of my efforts into making the games so I couldn't be bothered with all that sales stuff. How I was able to earn my living for three years doing this is beyond me, but somehow I managed.

Of course, that was before our current economic meltdown. There's only so far word-of-mouth can take you when people have less money to spend. When Convergence was released I knew I had to step my efforts up. I began speaking to every PR person I could find and asked them for advice.

I sent out press releases, I offered discounts, I implemented limited-time offers. Basically, I did everything I could to make some noise and tell people that my games were out there and it would be a darn good idea to give me their cash in order to play them.

In the end, the efforts proved worthwhile. My traffic surged exponentially. My site's Alexa ranking, languishing in the two million range, sprinted ahead to a respectable 300,000 to 400,000 and it continues to gain traction. My monthly income is still enough to pay all the bills and keep me doing what I love. I still have a ways to go, and I'm always looking to PR people to talk to, but putting more time into PR was the best move I could have made.

[This article originally appeared on Gamasutra.] 

Dave Gilbert has been interested in adventure games ever since 1986, when his mother made the mistake of buying him a copy of Wishbringer. Since then, he has authored over six successful freeware games, including 2004's award-winning Two of a Kind. In 2006, he turned his hobby into a fulltime career and founded Wadjet Eye Games.


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