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Postmortem Highlights: Behind The Scenes of  Tales of Monkey Island

Postmortem Highlights: Behind The Scenes of Tales of Monkey Island Exclusive

May 13, 2010 | By Staff

May 13, 2010 | By Staff
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More: Console/PC, Exclusive

The latest issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, available for subscribers and for digital purchase now, includes a postmortem of Telltale Games's Tales of Monkey Island, written by the studio's former marketing coordinator Emily Morganti.

Tales of Monkey Island, an episodic adventure game, was a revival of LucasArts's classic Monkey Island series. LucasArts published the PC and WiiWare game in five parts from July to December 2009.

These excerpts from the May 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine reveal various "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" highlights from throughout the creation of the game, revealing how the company employed an episodic structure that presented both benefits and challenges:

Telling A Story In Five Chapters

One of the advantages to Telltale's approach of releasing episodic games like Tales of Monkey Island as a "season" is that the developer can plan and spread out an epic story over five chapters with lots of foreshadowing and cliffhangers:

"Monkey Island is famous for sending Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate™, on sprawling adventures. It may be a comedic franchise, but below the surface, it's fairly serious and epic. To do it justice, we felt Tales of Monkey Island needed to be one big story told in five chapters, rather than five little stories loosely strung together (as we have typically handled other episodic series). Approaching the story this way meant evolving our design process and staying hyperconscious of our story decisions, right from the beginning."

"Episodic games provide a unique chance to keep the audience's attention for several months as the series runs its course. While we wanted each episode to provide a gratifying experience on its own, we also wanted to leave players dying to find out what would happen next--the same way an addictive television series like Lost keeps viewers guessing week after week."

"Early in the design process, we put a lot of thought into the questions each episode should raise and the cliffhanger it would end with. Our intent was not to abruptly end the episode at the height of the action but to bring it to a satisfying conclusion, and then tantalize the player with a tiny bit more. In the first episode, this cliffhanger came in the form of a mysterious woman putting a sword to Guybrush's neck. We knew we'd made the right choice when our forum exploded with speculation about who she was and what she would do to him."

"This season-wide approach to the story gave us interesting opportunities to develop character relationships as well. Rather than revealing up front that Guybrush would enter into a complicated friendship with this new woman, we allowed this relationship with mercenary Morgan LeFlay to unfold naturally throughout the series' five-month run. The demon pirate LeChuck suddenly denouncing his evil ways would have been a much harder sell if we hadn't been able to gradually reveal his new personality."

"And the shocking events of the fourth chapter, which set up our grand finale, were heightened by the fact that terrible things were happening to people the players had grown to love not over the course of a few hours, but over several months. Tales of Monkey Island showcases some of our most intricate storytelling to date, and we couldn't have pulled it off if we hadn't thought so much up front about how to use the five-chapter format to tell this story."

The Schedule Was Too Close For Comfort

Though the studio has plenty of experience releasing episodic games on time, external conditions that popped up before even the first chapter's release sent a "ripple effect" on the rest of the schedule:

"Tales of Monkey Island is our fifth monthly episodic series, and by this point, we have a pretty good system. We usually take several months up front to build assets, plan the story, and get a head start on episode production before the monthly releases begin. Once the series launches, we follow overlapping schedules, with work on a new episode ramping up as the previous episode wraps."

"The Tales of Monkey Island schedule followed the same principles but encountered problems in practice, starting with a very ambitious release date. From a marketing standpoint, revealing the game at E3 in June and announcing its July 7 premiere at the same time was a good move. We maximized the Monkey Island love by putting out our game at around the same time as LucasArts' The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition."

"However, our agreement with LucasArts wasn't finalized until sometime in February, so we were on a very fast-tracked schedule to meet this date. Thanks to hard work from everyone on the team, we were able to launch our first episode on time, but this situation sent a ripple effect through the rest of the schedule."

"We believe that for an episodic game to be successful, it must follow a consistent and reliable schedule. This makes scheduling a critical factor in our process, and keeps us under pressure to stay on track and release our games on time."

"We did initially try to make up for the scheduling issues by planning a six-week gap between the first two episodes, instead of four weeks. Since we were still getting up to speed with the series, we needed that time to get Episode 2 out the door, but we still couldn't get a head start on Episode 3. By the end of the season, the schedule was extremely tight, and we ended up taking a few extra weeks to get the final episode out."

"The external conditions that drive announcements can't always be controlled, and even in hindsight, we'd probably still announce at E3 and launch soon after. But we now know all too well that if the schedule is compromised up front, it will be very tight in the home stretch."

Wanted Every Episode To Be Bigger And Better Than The Last (AKA Feature Creep)

Also particularly dangerous for any developer hoping to finish a game on time, especially for a project like this that already faced a tight schedule with the release of each episode, is feature creep:

"The drive to make the best game possible is hardly a negative, and we don't regret having a team full of overachievers who take enormous pride in their work. The problem comes when people don't know when to stop."

"To some extent, our episodic development prevents feature creep, because the schedules are fairly compact and the monthly release dates provide clearly defined endpoints. But if a scene isn't reading right, this often isn't apparent until late in the process. The game doesn't come together in its fully playable format until a week or two before release, at which point there's not much time left for changes."

"Spending time perfecting the story's important moments is easy to justify. It's devoting too much time to smaller bits and throwaway gags that can get us into trouble. For example, when Guybrush dives down to the ocean floor in the third episode, we had a perfect opportunity to reference a similar scene in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge. Doing so wasn't necessary for the story, but it made the game a richer experience for Monkey Island fans who would understand the reference."

"On the other hand, it was a lot of work for only about 20 seconds of gameplay, and additions like this can have impacts on other departments, such as the testers who have to make sure the new content works correctly, and the sound team which has very little time to score sound effects. The more we tried to squeeze in, the more those guys were slammed."

"Feature creep caused additional problems with our multiplatform development, since last-minute changes to the PC version could send us over the size limit for the WiiWare version. Our compression tools make Wii conversion fairly painless, but when the episodes get too large, we have to start hunting for space wherever possible."

"Our producer recalls a few stressful days where we needed to squeeze another 600K out of the final episode, and we had already purged all of the "low-hanging fruit" to get it that far. We ended up reducing or purging assets that added up to a measly 5-10K to find space."

"Of course we're going to keep creating the best games we can, but we need to get better about prioritizing and ensuring that any last-minute additions are really important 'need to have' changes as opposed to tweaks that would be nice to have."

Additional Info

The full postmortem of Tales of Monkey Island explores more of "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" during the course of the game's development, and is now available in the May 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine.

The issue also includes crunch-time horror stories, adventure game veteran and The Secret of Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert writes about some of the design decisions that he made in that game, an interview with video game composer Akira Yamaoka, and our regular monthly columns on design, art, music, programming, and humor.

Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of May 2010's magazine as a single issue.

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