As we get close to completing the game to alpha quality (fully playable with art assets complete to a functional level), which will be due in June’s milestone, I am preparing to do a full playthrough to check the script / logic for the first half of the game. This is a really exciting part of the development period – it is where we ensure that the core story elements are being conveyed through gameplay and dialogue, and that the key gameplay objectives are always clear. We need to make sure that the player always knows what their objective is – and that we reward a player for trying something logical, even if it is not the correct solution. It is where a lot of the humour is written, the time for coming up with Easter eggs, and designing the repercussions that result from making certain gameplay choices.
As well as working on gameplay, we are now starting to create the introduction movie. It is still a bit early to talk too much about specific story elements, or locations, but below is a layout rough drawn by Lee, with an indication of how a bird should fly across the scene. I am always excited by the way that layout artists use the 2D medium to create a 3D effect. The camera will move from the right, roll to follow the bird (although the landscape will appear to remain horizontal), then dive into a gorge and back up again. Tori has taken this as a base and is currently working on creating the line and colouring this vista – I am confident that it will look spectacular. We’ll let you see the final result (hopefully in the next update).
To check that the storyboard will translate as envisaged into a stunning movie, we scan it and Tim creates a very rough animatic (an animated storyboard) which we are able to review, and tweak wherever necessary to achieve the desired visual feeling.
We are building to the recording of the first tranche of dialogue which will take place in mid July – Rolf will be coming to the UK next week and I am looking forward to catching up, taking him through the game, and hearing his thoughts. I will also need to plan where to record, and when to hold auditions – and check which of our favourite actors will be available. We plan to record the second tranche about a month later in mid August. This will cover any remaining dialogue, plus any pick ups – lines that we want to re-record. We have a milestone called ‘script lock’, being the point at which (obviously) the script is locked and so cannot change and voice recording can start. I always aim to lock the script as late as possible within the schedule. This is because we have the flexibility to adjust puzzles and narrative exchanges up to script lock – once dialogue is locked and recorded, our opportunity to tweak the game is greatly reduced. Once script lock is achieved, the dialogue can start to be translated (which takes about two weeks), then implemented into the game, tested, and only then can localised voice recordings take place. This is currently scheduled to all be done by the end of September – after which we will need few weeks to run final tests, and then launch the game!
Prior to release, we will work on a full quality ‘vertical slice’ with speech, which is due in late August. This is the point at which we will be able to release beta code. Your comments at this stage will greatly help us polish the game.
Throughout this period, we will also be honing the user interface. A recent example of this was with the on-screen icons. I don’t like the way that the current Broken Sword games have four icons on screen – I worry that the upper icons distract the eye, so breaking the immersion. So I sat with Tony to work out if we could come up with a better solution. My top priority was to find a way to get rid of the upper icons – without just moving them all down to position the four along the bottom!
Our initial solution was to reduce the buttons to just two – ‘inventory’ staying as one click/touch because it needs to be accessed so regularly, and because its function is still within the gameworld. All the support elements (hints, achievements, options, save and restore etc.), which are outside the gameworld, would be accessed from a catch-all second button. However a second option is to just offer the inventory button on it’s own, which opens the inventory and displays other icons at the top of the screen.
We have decided, for the time being, to try this second approach to see whether it feels intuitive – the potential downside is that players may not intuitively associate the support elements with the inventory. Best to implement and see how it feels: there is plenty of time to change it again if we feel that, once implemented, there is a better solution. Please do let us know if you have any immediate thoughts.
I am delighted that the story and high level game design are now complete – as mentioned previously, the additional scenes and characters promised in the stretch goals had quite an impact on the design and therefore the schedule – but all for the better. Throughout early development, the high level game design and the story are written in parallel – each supporting the other so that the story works when written as a linear script, while offering great gameplay opportunities. So the game design needs to support the story, but when we then design a cool gameplay moment, then this will feed back into a story change.
Using the story and high level game design, we then create a mid level design document, which specifies the gameplay more precisely. Our layout artists will then create a rough layout, which the scripters use to roughly implement a scene. They will check the functionality, as well as testing to ensure that gameplay flows correctly. Where necessary, the roughs will be adjusted to incorporate any functionality changes.
Once the location is approved, the rough is passed to a clean up artist to draw to final line quality. Because we lost some months with the design changes, we are now working hard to try to ensure that we stay on track. Much of this pressure is on the shoulders of the scripters who have aggressive milestones to meet. Only once the final layout is completed and implemented can character animations, background animations, and camera movement be specified, and the screen coloured.
Last month we invited people to post their memories of playing Broken Sword first time around. Thank you so much for all those who replied. We will compile them into a ‘Scroll of Broken Sword Memories’ and post them soon. Here’s a snippet from the memories of a fellow backer, Martin:
“I remember sitting there with my Dad as the game began, worried that the black screen meant something had gone horribly wrong. Then THAT voiceover began: Paris in the fall. The last months of the year, and the end of the millennium. The city holds many memories for me - of cafes, of music, of love… and of death. I knew then that I was playing something truly special.
I remember my Dad half-heartedly telling me off the next morning as he went to work for getting up so early to play the game - had I actually been up all night?! He later admitted he was simply jealous he couldn't stay and watch.”
And finally. A couple of weeks ago I was thrilled to accept an invitation to join the Board of Governors of the BFI (British Film Institute). The BFI are the body that helps to fund and promote British film, as well as managing a huge archive of old films, and now they want to engage with the games industry. I have always had an interest in the similarities and differences between how narrative is conveyed in film and video games / interactive media. Clearly a film, as with any linear medium, tells you a story, while with video games you discover the story through exploration and puzzle solving. Interactivity brings huge advantages over linearity in terms of engagement and emersion – but also disadvantages. Given that the engagement is active rather than passive, the context and objectives need to be clear to the player as soon as the game starts – so providing limited opportunity to create empathy with the protagonists (linear mediums have much longer to build this empathetic relationship). Likewise because of the limited opportunity to build a negative relationship with the antagonist, a way needs to be found to avoid a melodramatic ending in which the antagonist just appears, cackling and announces that, for example, he’s your father. I could go on and on. Please let me know if you would like me to expand on these thoughts in the next update.
And really finally… The eagle-eyed of you will notice that the dates that I gave above would take us slightly beyond the end of September, the release date that I gave a couple of months ago. At this stage in development as we approach alpha, most of the key risks are solved so, barring disaster, the game should release within a few weeks either side (although coming in earlier than planned is unheard of) of the late September date. But we are unable to specify the definitive release date quite yet.
As always, thank you for your support and your faith in this project.