The very same night of the concept revision, we started working on the dossier that we would submit to the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (or "VAF", in Dutch) to request funding to build The Graveyard. Unlike some other independent game developers and artists we don't have a "day job". Making games is a fulltime occupation for us, simply because the things we want to make are incredibly time-consuming. So we need funding to work on our projects. A large chunk of the money tends to go to our wages.
The request was submitted on 4 June 2007. Submitting funding requests was nothing new for us. When we realized that getting funding was more a matter of luck than anything else, we made a point of submitting a request for funding with every deadline, which was every three months. We have a long list of ideas, so there's always something to submit. And sometimes we get lucky. We had already learned that smaller projects with lower budgets make a better chance at being accepted. So we chose The Graveyard this time.
The Flanders Audiovisual Fund focuses mainly on film. It is a vital instrument in the local creation of cinema because without government support it would be impossible to create Flemish films, given that the territory is so tiny and film production so expensive. Yet cinema is an extremely popular form of entertainment, here also. The support of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund offers a guarantee that we don't get flooded by alien culture. I like to think that games fall into this category too.
Sadly, the Flanders Audiovisual Fund does not agree, yet. So we generally have to submit our requests for funding in their "Experimental Media" category, which mostly exists for video art and museum-type media art, a category with a much smaller budget than film.
On 11 September 2007, we received the good news that the Flanders Audiovisual Fund had accepted our proposal. They were going to grant us 15,000 Euros (out of a total budget of 18,000) for producing The Graveyard. We needed this amount for two months of full time work for two people (plus the company overhead) and hiring a few freelancers for specific tasks.
We received commentary from the commission that makes the decision about a request for funding. A few things stood out in their assessment of The Graveyard. First, the good news:
Some members of the commission stress the artistic and graphic qualities of Tale of Tales. Through previous works, they have proven to be capable of creating a fascinating universe. The commission recognizes the special position of Tale of Tales within the international games landscape. One member stresses the diversity in the work of Tale of Tales, with big projects like The Endless Forest and small and focused ones like The Graveyard.
But despite of the final positive response of the commission, there was still a fair bit of criticism.
The commission is divided about the concept and execution of the project. Most members are convinced by the simple, humoristic and clever concept. The idea of exploring the theme of dying in an interactive digital piece is relevant and intriguing. Tale of Tales deconstructs the medium of games. Other members believe that the project doesn't offer much artistic added value or content and is only based on a superficial experience of shock.
One member considers the project to be more of a parody on Tale of Tales' own work than on the games industry or game aesthetics. The members of the commission also differ in opinion about the public reception of the piece. Part of the commission is afraid that the discrepancy between concept and experience will be too great, causing frustration with the players.
And the eternal fantasy that art people have about digital projects:
One member of the commission thinks that the project can also be realised without the support of VAF.
This always comes up. Because we make games and because we insist on distributing them digitally rather than rarifying them on media art festivals or in galleries or museums, some people think that our work can support itself. We hope some of it will be able to in the future. But as you will see in the final chapter of this article, about sales and response, The Graveyard is not one of those projects.
Pre-production interactive prototype to get a general idea of the gameplay and explain the concept to our collaborators
Choosing Technology and learning how to use it
We had made a very simple blocky prototype of the game in Quest3D, the authoring application we use for making The Endless Forest and The Path. But since The Graveyard was such a small project and very simple in terms of technology, we decided to take the opportunity to experiment with a new technology. We had already been looking at Unity in the past but it wasn't until we heard that it also supports development for Wii that we got really interested. So we wanted to try it out, to see what we could do with it.
Experimenting with new technology also fit within the research into different types of programming that we are doing with media arts collective Foam in Brussels. The best way to find out the advantages and disadvantages of an authoring tool is to develop a real project with it from concept to publication.
An extra motivation was the satisfaction of a long-term curiosity: would there be an audience on the Mac OS platform for our work? We had always suspected that there was one but had never been able to test it (because Quest3D is exclusively Windows-based). You will find out in the final chapter of this article how that turned out.
While games made with Unity can be run on several platforms, the authoring application only runs on Mac OS. Auriea had been a Mac user since forever. But Michaël had always been using Windows. Working with realtime 3D and Quest3D had moved our activity in the direction of Windows, so the prospect of doing a Mac project was exciting for Auriea.
We knew from the start that programming in Unity would not be a lot of fun for us. Because it is script-based and we are used to the visual programming in Quest3D. But literally everything else in Unity came as a welcome surprise. As opposed to Quest3D, Unity is designed for making games. This means that a lot of things you would have to build for yourself in Quest3D are a standard component of Unity.
At first, this felt a little bit limiting and even patronizing, but as we realized that we were in fact making a game that wasn't that much different from other games, we welcomed the convenience. Also, as opposed to Quest3D, Unity has been designed. Designed with the user in mind. Unity is not just an interface to a bunch of technical features, which is what Quest3D often feels like. Unity is an authoring application for humans to get stuff done.
The most delightful aspect of this well-thought-out design is probably the asset managment (which is nothing but headaches in Quest3D). Unity does not use the concept of importing assets. Instead you put all your models and sounds and textures and scripts in your project folder and the editor finds them for you. Every time these assets change, they are automatically updated in the game.
This is especially nice for Blender files, which are supported directly by Unity. You can easily switch between Blender and Unity and make changes. It's a fluid process. The same is true for scripting. Even its Collada support (which we needed to get our character animations out of Max) is excellent. We could probably have shared the project folder between the two of us, but our network tends to be a bit flaky for Macs, and we like to keep a repository of our projects.
So we decided to use Unity's Asset Server technology to share the project. It's a very nice repository system built into the application. Sometimes an update requires a restart of the editor, but even that isn't very problematic as Unity keeps a cache of your project that allows it to load things in the blink of an eye.
The final game as it is displayed in authoring application Unity
At the top left, a schematic view that allows you to see your game world from any angle, even when it is running. Underneath that, the game as it is seen by the player. In the middle, the bottom window is basically an overview of your asset folder and the top window shows the assets that are actually used in the game. To the right, you see the exposed properties of the selected game object, in this case the avatar. You can change these properties while the game is running, which is very handy for experimenting.