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Postmortem: Tale of Tales' The Path
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Postmortem: Tale of Tales' The Path

July 22, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 8 Next

Looking for an aesthetic style

It was our desire all along to experiment with the forest, to stylize trees, foliage and flowers. We followed our motto that it is more important that the place feel real than look real. I chose abstract baroque ornaments and patterns for things like leaves and flowers. The trees give the impression of having realistic looking leaves as you run past them.

Everything is rendered in black without detail. This not only kept the amount of work to be done on them to a minimum, it also gave the world a somber surreal feeling. Bits of color come out only in the Attraction areas where the world bursts into full over-saturation.

We looked at artifacts from failed photographic processes: light leaks, bokeh, Polaroid film glitches. We soften and blur the image and give it a patina, making the screen dirty, then finding a use for the dirt. We came to the "double exposure" effect of overlaying the center of interest as a clue.

All the little scratches or paw prints on the screen lead you to your wolf; the white swirl leads to the Girl In White. It was important that all of these effects have a purpose and there is nothing on the screen that doesn't in some way serve as a clue for the player.

The Quest3D Nature Paint system made it very easy to quickly paint in the trees. We had help from Paladin Studios to help us refine the ground shaders and optimize the post processing shaders.

When it came to overall color, I knew that I wanted a way for the color itself to be horrific. I wanted neither a typical film-like graininess nor blue-for-night effect, but to really strike people with the color, like a Dario Argento horror film. I feel it sets our horror game apart from the rest. The color and stylization of the forest contrast with the more somber versions of Grandmother's House and make the Wolf-violated versions all the more striking.

We did not want to compete on 3D graphics with big 3D game titles. We wanted it to be unique, as if every screen were somehow handmade.

When we changed the name of the game from 144 to The Path we designed a logo. We got tired of constantly searching for an answer whenever someone asked "What does 144 mean?" Also we wanted an easier name to remember. After a while we got the feeling that the logo we'd made was way too much like a movie logo, or a too typical "grunge" type treatment. We commissioned typographer and graphic artist Marian Bantjes to make us a logo which felt more in-keeping with the spirit of the girls and the forest. And the rest is history.

Prototypes and Demos and Music

Our process consists of making the game and then designing it. That means using prototypes as a tool for guiding the design. As soon as we can, we want to have something in the game engine to play with. It really cannot exist for us in theory; only once we have "made it real" in prototype can the idea mean anything.

We do not want to be mislead by a pretty drawing or model. We want to get a camera in place, work out some preliminary navigation. We are then constantly looking at that prototype, or videos of it. And from these we iteratively make the decisions which become the final game.

Through this process we came up with ideas and quickly implemented them in the game with the actual characters, so we would get an idea if things are a good idea or not. Since the engine had originally shared code from The Endless Forest we thought we might make the player into a kind of puppeteer. We had interfaces of buttons connected to animations which needed to play out in a certain sequence to act out a scene.

In one early prototype, we had made a version where you could switch between characters and play the Red Girl, The Girl in White or The Wolf at any time. It was inspiring, like a play where actors can jump from one body to the next! But we felt it would add too much work to make it this way unless we were to have only three characters in the game. In another version we had a dance choreographed between Ruby and Charming Wolf!

Rejected gameplay idea: The dance-off! Yeah!

Once we got a few of the final music tracks, we could tell that this was not going to be in any way a lightweight game. The music Jarboe and Kris Force made for the game had such an enormous effect that it changed our thinking about the game design. And this, we feel, is as it should be. A video game should not be seen as its individual parts. Each individual model is not a sculpture unto itself, but more like a brushstroke in a larger picture.

The entire game is the sculpture. I just put emphasis -- more detail -- on the parts where the player's interest should be held the most. And this philosophy is quite helpful to the indie developer making a 3D game. One need not waste time and assets trying to make each individual thing perfect and "realistic"; make it beautiful instead in its totality. Let imperfection shine by putting together assets made with the whole heart and the intention of making a complete world.

In the belly of the beast

The Path was our first commercial video game project. And it's also the biggest project we've worked on so far. It was a completely independent production: managed by ourselves and funded with art grants and a loan. It was both an experiment with the "punk economy" advocated by our Manifesto and a conscious effort to make our art more accessible to gamers and less savvy computers users alike, while optimizing its appeal to a non-gaming audience.

What Went Wrong

Not enough time

This probably happens in every video game production: many great ideas need to be abandoned because of lack of time. In the production of The Path, we also had to make some tough choices between improving our technology and polishing art. Since we thought the aesthetic appeal of The Path was going to be one of its strongest features and since we are far from master programmers, we compromised heavily on the technology side.

It didn't matter too much to us that characters would walk through trees once in a while or that their AI didn't always kick in at the right times. We even enjoyed the chaos this produced, as long as the game felt right. But some players were turned off by the lack of technical excellence. It's surprising how many gamers are only vaguely aware of the enormous cost of game development and the precarious situation of independent developers, while in our experience, things like bad performance on some hardware is directly related to budget limitations.

Recruiting a modeler

We didn't originally intend for Auriea to design, model, and texture all the characters. This is a time-consuming task, and her tasks as data director were far more crucial to the project. But all the modelers we tested just couldn't get the style right. To create stylized characters for a horror game that are not cartoony but still attractive is apparently a skill not taught in 3D academies.

Part of the reason, probably, was that we only got male candidates. Our experience with finding our wonderful animator Laura Raines Smith had taught us that it takes a woman to animate girls properly. Maybe it takes a woman to model girls as well. We don't blame the men; we blame the fact that more women don't choose 3D modeling as a career! And that we couldn't find the right person when we needed her.

Bad crunch

We had planned the production to be finished quite a bit before launch, to allow us sufficient time to fine-tune the experience. But as the work kept piling up and progress was slower than expected, we started eating into that time as if it were a mere buffer zone. To compensate for this loss, we worked harder.

For four months in a row, we worked 14 hours per day. After a while you get used to it. It's even easy to some extent, because the extreme pressure forces you to only work on the most important parts of the production while you can safely ignore everything else. But it's just not a good idea. It's bad for your temper, bad for your health and worst of all, it's ultimately bad for the project, because there's no time for reflection when making decisions.

Sadly, the only way to have prevented the crunch would have been to reduce the scope of the game. So in the end, we don't really regret it, even if we are determined to stick better to the plan next time.

Publishers & Console Companies

We didn't really need support from publishers for the development of The Path. But had we not designed the production to fit into a small budget, it is safe to say that The Path would have followed 8 to the Land of Unfinished Dreams. The climate in the games industry has certainly improved, thanks to the commercial viability of a greater variety of games.

The success of casual games and Nintendo's Wii and DS consoles had certainly stimulated the interest of publishers in games that might be smaller than blockbusters and perhaps even original in design. But in the end, it is still the bean counters that make the decisions. So while the interest was great, the support was ultimately non-existent.

The non-gamer audience

A more painful place for us to fail was our hope to reach an audience outside of the typical gamer demographic. We thought that designing a game with an original aesthetic appeal and theme and an interaction system that was very easy and forgiving would be enough. But without proper marketing, this just doesn't work. It's easy to market to gamers because they form a very well organized subculture with a blooming press and myriads of supportive blogs. But outside of the niche, the audience is fragmented, and in general fairly hostile towards video games.

This is a serious problem for independent developers, and somewhat of a vicious circle for innovation in the industry. There's a contradiction in the fact that it takes independent developers to create projects that may appeal outside of the core audience and that it takes a corporate budget to market to this audience.

We've always found it strange that the small companies are the ones taking the risks, while surely the big ones are a lot more resistant to failure. Things being the way they are, growing the audience for video games towards a greater diversion will be a slow project, if it ever happens.

This puts us in a strange position. On the one hand, we really want to create titles that show non-gamers how enjoyable video games can be. But on the other, ultimately, only gamers will buy our products. It is difficult to resist the urge to give in and make our games more game-like. But if we don't explore the vast terrain outside of games, who will?

No post-launch budget

By launch time, we were virtually broke.

Independent marketing consists for the most part of manual labor: sending emails, posting to forums, talking to press, making blog posts, etcetera. But we couldn't afford to do that full-time. Let alone purchase advertisements or investigate even more expensive options like porting the game to a console or developing new downloadable content. We didn't even have a budget for developing a representative demo.

If we hadn't made such a bad deal with CultuurInvest concerning paying back the loan (we owed them 100 percent of our income until the loan was paid back), we could have reinvested some of the money coming in into increasing the reach of the game. We should not have accepted that part of the deal. It only took us half a year to pay back the loan, but by that time a lot of opportunities had passed us by, and sales had obviously declined.

Not commercially viable

We were never certain how much money we would make with The Path. Not in the slightest. We didn't know if we were going to sell a few hundred copies or hundreds of thousands. We literally had no idea.

The total production budget of The Path was around 300,000 euro. And so far, one year after launch, the Path has brought about 135,000 euro back to us. A quarter of the budget was covered by previously-developed technology. But even if we would subtract that, we would still be 90,000 euro short of breaking even. It's doubtful if The Path will make that much in the second year of the two-year period we gave ourselves to sell the game. But, of course, one never knows.

On the positive side, however, we have been able to pay back the loan. And the rest of the budget was covered by non-commercial arts funding. So, in purely financial terms, we did break even. We were just hoping that The Path could be a test case for demonstrating the viability of artistic projects in a commercial environment. But so far it looks like the support of non-commercial funding is still required to do this type of work.

Article Start Previous Page 5 of 8 Next

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