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4. Introducing the game early enough with a good trailer, and taking an active role in marketing
The first trailer for Trine was released on the 5th of December 2008. Most gamers and journalists had not heard of Frozenbyte before, and the announcement came out of the blue. We wanted to launch with a trailer because it was possible -- the contract had been signed just a few months prior and the game was already running fine, so we planned to use that to to our advantage.
The trailer itself took many weeks of careful planning and hard work. It was very much a personal mini project for the game's producer and original concept creator. Many passages of the levels were modified to suit the trailer -- obstacles were removed, geometry reworked, enemies added for extra fodder, and so on.
The producer's background in programming and knowledge of the game engine and editor were essential for this work and paid off in the end. Multiple people took part in various parts of the trailer and the whole team offered their thoughts and feedback and as a result the trailer became very good and showed the game in a positive light.
The response to the trailer was totally unexpected and overwhelming. Even communities known for their harsh criticism approved of the trailer. After three years of setbacks and failures, the team was reinvigorated with newfound passion.
The spirit at the office increased rapidly. This cannot be overlooked in the overall quality of the game, and it was probably crucial with the art team's freedom and their ability to succeed. The newfound spirit and confidence was somewhat new to the company, as this time it applied to the team as a whole and not just to a few crazy individuals.
The success of the first trailer brought in plans for more trailers of similar quality (it became much easier towards the end as the game got closer to release) and helped enormously in reinforcing our belief in the game. We did everything we could from materials to press announcements, previews, interviews, websites, reviews and ultimately end-user support . We were keen to get as much press coverage as we could and it paid off.
5. Getting the atmosphere and mood right
"Once upon a time in a land far, far away..." is Trine's opening line. It was one of the first decisions made story-wise and it set the tone for the rest of the story and characters. We knew we did not want the game to be doom and gloom -- rather, we should embrace the then-developing colorful art style to the full and instead of highbrow fantasy, we should aim for a fairytale atmosphere.
Considerable time was spent on making sure the characters fit the game's atmosphere. Originally the game featured a very generic knight, thin and lean with a sword and shield. As the game's art style progressed into a more and more vivid and vibrant direction, the knight started to feel too serious and boring.
Screenshot illustration of the old knight character (left) facing a skeleton enemy and the new knight (right) battling against the 'boss' in the third level of the final game.
His transformation was the driving force for the final mood of the game -- making him fat instantly stroke a chord with the team and spurred further ideas, including great, just-right animations. In a rather stereotypical fashion he also became daft, and then gained his voice. This led to the game's overall vocal tone. With the help of an experienced casting director, Trine got a cast that felt spot-on, including a narrator who we wanted to sound like "a grandfather who tells the story to his grandchildren".
The narrator tells the story of three characters thrust into saving a kingdom. There's no princess in the castle but the story follows a treaded fairytale path and doesn't divert too far off. A simple story, and behind it, a long-winding and complicated process.
There had been a couple of (internal) writers and many of their ideas had been good, but things hadn't moved forward. The art team had been making levels without any regard to the plot, and at some point it was realized that the levels were more or less ready and there was no story connecting them, as there was no story at all other than a few different introductions and dialogue pieces.
A goal was set -- whatever the story, it shouldn't affect existing levels; instead it should focus on simple things and try to convey the desired atmosphere and mood of the game. In essence, it was accepted that the story would not bring the game any awards -- we weren't aiming for the moon and stars -- but at the same time it should not bring it down in any way.
With time running out and effort needed elsewhere too, we cut everything that we could and stuck to the bare minimum. Levels got accompanied by simple loading screens that showed the heroes' journey -- Indiana Jones-esque travel plans were abandoned for a much simpler yet similar presentation.
The narrator's speech accompanied the loading screens, and if the speech lines got a bit too long in order to get the story across, so be it, because we could not include a whole lot of dialogue in the beginning of each level due to fear of combat gameplay getting in the way. These oneliner-like musings of the characters were important in getting the characters' personalities through in a rather small amount of dialogue.
We also decided not to have dialogue in the middle of levels, and this gave clear focus points for writing (although in hindsight we should not have been as strict -- many players would have liked to hear more dialogue during the levels).
In the end, we achieved the atmosphere we wanted, and reviews reflected this. The characters got mostly positive comments, the narrator was praised a lot, the story was mentioned and usually in neutral or positive tone, even though very few really understood what was going on, except the basic premise of undead rising and threatening a kingdom.
But it didn't matter -- the presentation and atmosphere were so strong that people gave the story a free pass. Music played an incredibly important part as well -- the beautiful soundtrack that spans the entire game is one of the most memorable aspects of the game to many gamers.
Embracing our limitations and constraints helped form a better game and enabled us to focus on other, most likely more important, areas of the game.