Postmortem: DreamForge's Sanitarium
December 4, 1998 Page 1 of 2
Sanitarium is an original adventure game filled with madness, delusion, and personal anguish. The same can be said for the development cycle. Sanitarium was developed by DreamForge Intertainment Inc., set in the heart of Greensburg, Pennsylvania. DreamForge employs about 45 people working on three to four projects at a time. We had previously developed an adventure game entitled Chronomaster, and our staff has a strong background in the development of computer RPGs. Sanitarium was a landmark game for us, primarily because the project originated in-house, and we had so much of ourselves invested in it.
The Designers' Tale
Sanitarium was born of a simple desire to create something special, something different. About two years ago, a few of us at DreamForge were feeling burnt out. We were tired of bandwagon games, eager for a fresh concept that we could dig into with enthusiasm. Most important, we wanted to make a fun game with substance and soul.
So, over some lukewarm cheeseburgers, Chris Straka (Director of Creative Development) asked Chad Freeman (Lead Programmer), Jason Johnson (3D Art Coordinator), Mike Nicholson (Lead Art and Design), Eric Rice (Art Director), and Tracy Smith (Post-Production Art Coordinator) what games they liked and why. Ideas were offered, counter-ideas brought forth, cheeseburgers grew cold and at times were nibbled upon. We discussed other forms of entertainment that would pertain to the game we wanted to make. Movies such as Jacob's Ladder, Seven, and 12 Monkeys were mentioned repeatedly, television shows such as The Outer Limits and the original Twilight Zone episodes were discussed. At a certain point in the discussion, it became clear that we wanted to make an adventure game.
DreamForge Intertainment Inc.
However, predictably, each of us had his own ideas of what the game should be about. Once the sound of human heads cracking together reached a deafening pitch, Chris Straka suggested that we make a game incorporating all of the ideas. He drew a crude wheel on a piece of paper, with a central hub and spokes radiating outward. The spokes would eventually become the diverse worlds within the game. The hub, that all-important plot framework that linked those worlds, had yet to be decided upon. Soon we realized that those separate ideas could be played out as psychotic episodes seen through the eyes of a mentally disturbed character. From that point on, the project was code-named Asylum. This would have been the game title, but we later discovered that the name was in use elsewhere. Hence the game was called Sanitarium.
Once the design process started in earnest, we had Sanitarium on the brain twenty-four hours a day. Each of us put a lot of fist-clenching, heart-soaring, spleen-churning effort into the project. It was a rewarding process for us, because most members of the team were new to the design experience. Sometimes at the end of the day, loose ends remained - questions regarding some story element or problems with the configuration of a certain puzzle. Many a wide-eyed game designer went to bed with visions of gargoyles and deformed children dancing around his head. When morning came, new angles and twists would reveal themselves like spirited flashers in the dawning sun.
We knew that we were on to something good. Though the core story was an afterthought in those original design meetings, we were determined to create a main plot line that held the game together and evoked strong emotions in the player. Working from disparate design notes, Mike Nicholson, the art and design lead, assumed the monumental task of scripting the game dialogue and creating the dialogue trees. As if he'd been suddenly transplanted into a Roger Corman movie, Mike quickly found himself neck deep in awkward lines and weak characters. After several days of confusion, he realized that the problem resided in the game worlds themselves. They had no true history, thus making it impossible to create detailed, realistic dialogues for the worlds' inhabitants. He went back to the design document and wrote background stories for each of the worlds, fleshing out the underlying themes and character motives, and smoothing over any inconsistencies. Mike also pushed the Sarah/Max connection and drafted the infamous "death scene." When he read his proposal to the design team, three of them nearly cried. With a concrete story in place, the characters all had rich backgrounds from which to draw and the same reference points to which they could refer. Scripting from that point on became relatively easy.
After Mike put together a rough draft of the script, DreamForge hired Chris Pasetto as the project's writer. His primary responsibility was to refine all character and cinematic scripts. As the development process went on, the scripts became more complex (as we noticed things we'd missed) then simple (as we tried to streamline the dialogues). Eventually, the script files looked like a slaughterhouse - tatters of butchered text casually strewn about like soggy meat by-products.
Figure 1. The original Sanitarium design team: (left to right) Eric Rice, Jason Johnson, Mike Nicholson, Tracy Smith, Chad Freeman, Chris Straka, and Scot Noel. (The author is off to the side, chasing squirrels.)
To maintain a consistent flow of game play and story, Chris had to balance the amount of dialogue that occurred during any one non-player character interaction with how NPCs were distributed throughout the levels. During beta testing, testers complained that many of the dialogue interactions were too long and that the keyword-based interaction trees were sometimes too complex. In addition, characters could end up talking about subjects that seemed strangely out of order, jumping between disparate topics like a bad news segment. Since a lot of us here tend to work that way anyway, we didn't find it too confusing.
Travis Williams, our executive producer, insisted that we trim some of the encounters and link many keywords together to prevent confusion. A lot of the original dialogue was purely atmospheric and time-consuming for the player to wade through in search of real answers. The final version had an improved narrative flow and better pacing through a balance of dialogue and action.
We were constantly concerned that the emotional content of the game would be lost in the medium. Our goal was to give the player the creeps. We took the time to think out what we wanted the player to feel on each level, what message and mood we wanted to get across. Our efforts in creating a cohesive atmosphere included not just a good storyline, but an immersive audio experience as well.
Sanitarium was DreamForge's first product to utilize stereo sound. The point-sourced sound system made for very natural-sounding effects within each level. But technology alone couldn't make the sound great without the right people to take advantage of it. Steve Bennet, our music and sound effects composer for the project, did some awesome work with the soundtrack. Working from lists generated by the design team, Steve searched a huge sound CD library for the necessary effects. Then he processed the sounds using Cool Edit Pro and Sound Forge, sometimes working over a sound effect multiple times to match the atmosphere of the level. The moody music he added, entirely original compositions created on a Kurzweil keyboard, brought a definite style to the levels that enhanced the creepy atmosphere.
Nonetheless, the voice acting should have been better. It's difficult to compete with other developers who have access to name actors and meet everyone's expectations. This isn't an excuse, but a simple matter of economics. Would we have liked to have, say, James Earl Jones for the voice of Morgan? Of course. But with 80 NPCs and a limited budget for voice acting, big-name actors were an impossibility.
The final hurdle in the design process came from our publisher. Late in the project, during beta testing, ASC Games approached us with a significant design change. Dave Klein, the president of ASC Games, was wholeheartedly behind the project and loved our game. But... "Could you make it easier to play?" He explained that ASC Games wanted Sanitarium to have mass-market appeal and to be accessible to everyone, not just adventure game players.
Our faces turned Barney-purple with indignation. We felt that such a move would both compromise the game's sophistication and seriously jeopardize our completion of the project. We were a few weeks away from the final ship date and being asked to undergo a major revision of our basic approach to the game design. Also, we were stubborn.
Travis Williams came out to discuss what could be done and what couldn't be done in a reasonable amount of time. Our original approach to game play could be summed up as, "You're an adventure gamer. Figure it out." This new way of thinking forced us to ask hard questions, such as, "Where in the game is this information conveyed to the player?" In many cases, it simply wasn't. This led to a lot of easy fixes - having the main character utter a strategically placed bit of dialogue or even altering existing dialogue to help the player make puzzle connections. When this couldn't be done without a metric ton of contrivance, we adjusted the puzzles to be more user-friendly.
Admittedly, the changes made Sanitarium focus more on entertainment than frustration. Players aren't perpetually stuck on difficult puzzles, so they participate in the story at a consistent pace and are able to enjoy it. Even the hardcore adventure game players that we initially targeted were satisfied by the balance of puzzle difficulty and richness of story.
The Artists' Tale
For all the designers' concentration on Sanitarium's story, many of the game elements were conceived in artistic terms. We knew that the visual atmosphere of the game would be extremely important to the game play. The art conveyed the emotions that the player would feel, as well as the player character's state of mind. Because it's all about emotions and states of mind, Sanitarium is a very art-intensive game. Thus, early in the process, the design team spent a lot of time determining the correct look for each part of the game.
One of the first things that we did was to gather reference material. We went on field trips to cemeteries, took pictures of St. Vincent's Cathedral, and raided local libraries. Eric Rice even captured a picture of a haunted gravestone on one of our cemetery photo shoots.
Back in the office, the heavy-duty work was getting underway. From concept sketches to full 3D models to touched-up game art, we strove to maintain that disturbing, realistic visual style as much as possible.
One of the first hurdles was an accurate isometric camera view. Finding a way to render six by four screen widths of landscape from twenty-four viewpoints and seam the shots together without any perspective warping was daunting. Tracy Smith worked out the bugs on this one. The final solution was to pull the cameras back to what would be the equivalent of viewing a city block with the Hubble telescope.
The biggest bottleneck that occurred during Sanitarium's development came during the post-production of the art. We call the post-production department "5D," not because they exist on some H.P. Lovecraft penta-dimensional plane, but because they work on a combination of 3D and 2D art. Once materials such as screens, characters, and animations poured smoothly out of 3D like good scotch, they had to go through the 5D twelve-step program before they would be ready for programming.
For the game art, Jason Johnson coordinated DreamForge's art staff as they used 3D Studio MAX to make the designers' vision a reality. The artists retouched the 3D background in Photoshop, then generated a temporary palette. Still barriers were clipped in true color, then squeezed into the temporary palette; coordinates were determined. 3D animations underwent alterations, retouches, and special effects as necessary. The artists then composited the animations into the retouched background. A final palette was generated and applied to all artwork for any given level. It was tough to create a palette that could support the massive environments and all the NPCs. The enormous number of colors used in the game was a nightmare for our post-production team. Using DeBabelizer Pro, these guys had to reduce entire levels of true-color renders to less than 230 colors. At that point, the original artists would walk over and ask, "Hey, what did you do to my level?" or management would say, "Is it gonna look like that when it's done?"
The steps continued. Still barriers in the temporary palette were reformatted into the new palette. Animations were then clipped and coordinates determined. Free-walking NPCs were retouched and clipped. Cursors, icons, and inventory were retouched and clipped. The player characters were put into a 24-color palette, retouched, and clipped. This was mind-numbing work at times. Even as brains turned to protein-rich pudding and limbs lost all feeling, the game art was taking shape.
All of this took anywhere from 50 to 350 man-hours per level. It was a demanding set of tasks requiring not only technical skill but the experience of having worked on games before and knowing how to deliver game art to a programming team in a perfectly usable form. Problems arose mainly due to inexperience.
The final look and quality of the levels and animations in Sanitarium is a testament to some very determined artists who stayed late, worked weekends, and apologized when they were too sick to crawl to their desks.
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