Talking to an audience at the MECCA For Games subconference in Los Angeles earlier this week, Katherine Anna Kang, president and founder of Fountainhead Entertainment (DOOM RPG), described her company's development of the John Carmack co-created Orcs & Elves for cellphones.
The 'Orcs & Elves Postmortem' began with a bang; with the lights lowered and attention focused on the projection screen, a short trailer filled with high-end mobile handset graphics and epic orchestral sound filled the room. When the lights returned, Katherine Anna Kang, president and founder of Fountainhead Entertainment, was there to present a development process filled with both great success and significant struggles.
With the success of Fountainhead's DOOM RPG, the company was granted by Electronic Arts, their publisher, the freedom to work on an original IP. With the idea of a traditional RPG model to follow up on the success of their earlier game, the company commenced development of a high-end game in BREW, which would later be ported to low-end BREW and J2ME handsets.
This approach, however, would be the cause of much pain during the game's development. Kang described the process as developing two totally separate games in separate development cycles concurrently. In moving from a memory footprint of 3555 kilobytes on the high-end to 279 on low-end J2ME phones no components were left unaltered in the porting process.
The art assets suffered the most significant cuts, where designers took away ceiling and floor textures and implementing many tricks to stretch the efficiency of assets. Many enemy assets performed double duty in the game; one example cited was a shadow creature being an upside-down wraith. Even with the significant cuts the low-end game required, designers struggled to retain good effects, such as a pseudo-water ripple in place of what could have been untextured blue.
The high quality audio design of the initial game suffered significant paring before fitting into the ports. From the 10 digital audio tracks and 116 sound effects of the original, designers implemented 2 MIDI tracks and 10 sound effects for the low-end game.
The code also went through numerous iterations in order to allow compression to do its best work. Small and large-scale reorganizations of uncompiled code were implemented as each new iteration revealed a few more bytes shaved off after running through compression. Even the order of loading assets into memory helped in making the most out of the low-end handsets they targeted.
There were also specific quirks to each handset that Fountainhead had to deal with. The Motorola V551 was singled out as a particularly painful porting target, largely because of a quirk of storing a duplicate of the RGB buffer in memory. This particular handset comprised two months of porting time.
By the end of the process, 6 months of high-end mobile game development were followed by 5 months of dedicated porting time for the various lower end handsets. These low-end ports of the game suffered significantly at the hands of their hardware, with memory constraints leading to one entire level of the game being dropped as well as performance around 3 frames per second, compared to the orignal's 50 FPS.
Despite the pains of the porting process, Orcs & Elves garnered critical and commercial success on both ends of the performance spectrum. Thanks largely to the nature of the game design, problems in speed and numbers of unique assets were ignored while the core of traditional RPG design shone through. This is also despite the fact that, through help from Electronic Arts, Fountainhead didn't address the extreme low-end 64 kilobyte J2ME target platform that most carriers demand of games.
Orcs & Elves 2 is currently in development, and its development cycle was directly inspired by the painful development experiences of the first game. This sequel is actually being made for the low-end target handsets first, with the higher-end handsets receiving prettier and better performing ports of this game. Thus far the development experience has proven to be much more pleasant and is translating into significant time savings compared to the last project.
Regardless of the development methods, both Kang and Orcs & Elves fans are looking forward to recreating the success and fun of the first game upon the sequel's release.