Do you want to play The Neverhood?
Mike Morrison and Kevin McGrath have been doing multimedia commissioned work for a variety of clients for many years under the Digital Media Workshop banner. The team's first game, Prominence, should appear this year.Adventure-Treff.de: Hello Mike and Kevin, thank you very much for taking some time for us. Please briefly introduce yourself and the function you will take on at the Digital Media Workshop.
Mike Morrison: Thank you! My name is Mike Morrison, I founded Digital Media Workshop, Inc in 1997 and have always been fortunate enough to work on music production, design for print and web media, production of 3D graphics and other multimedia products for a variety of clients to have been well utilized.
In relation to Prominence, I take on different roles: Together with Kevin, I'm responsible for the design and the story. As for the production side, Tom and I handle the audio together. In addition, the entire species area falls under my responsibility. As for business, I keep doing communications with publishers, PR, marketing, and financial matters.
Kevin McGrath: Thanks! My name is Kevin McGrath. I am the programmer in charge of Prominence. I also did the design and story development with Mike.
AT: You are not working on your game full time. So please give us an idea of how exactly the division looks like for you or how you bring the various facets of your company under one roof.
Mike: When I'm not working on Prominence, I usually work on projects for our clients - not least to financially support Prominence's development and to make sure we don't run out of lights. I think the ratio is about 50/50. I've been working eighty or ninety hours a week for so long that I probably won't know what to do with myself when I'm back to one job.
AT: Please tell us about adventure games that have influenced you over the years and explain why. In this context, please also tell us which games had a direct impact on Prominence and for what reasons.
Mike: I probably feel the same way as many other adventure players: I have great memories of Curse of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, The Neverhood, the first two Gabriel Knight parts and a number of other classics.
My first real exposure to first-person adventures was Amerzone and Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time - which I mostly forget to mention when asked about the sci-fi adventure games I know.
Regarding games that had a direct impact on Prominence, well, back then I really liked some of the puzzles and the way they were integrated into the game in Spycraft. The use of the Kennedy assasination tool to find out the hiding place of the assassin, then find out his identity with facial recognition for example. Sure, it was made simple, but it gave the whole thing a very realistic note. Still Life, for example, went in a similar direction with luminol, fake ID and fingerprints. These are examples that are very close to reality and that is important to me as it helps to make the player feel like they are really part of what they have experienced. We tried to take a similar approach in Prominence. What is the function of this machine? How does it work? Why is that even important? Why is she here at all?
From a technical point of view, Myst IV: Revelation blew my mind when it came out. The figures fit perfectly into the panorama backgrounds and the way that harmonized with the animated elements was just very consistent. In Myst 4, different elements were used to really try to keep the immersion level extremely high. The sound was fantastic too, by the way.
Then of course Scratches was a huge influence when it comes to what a small team can do. In fact, I bought it for each of our team members and each of them was assigned to play it before we started production.
As for Prominence as a game in and of itself and the story, we're probably far more influenced by books and films. Kevin and I are both former NaNoWriMo winners, and I think the way the story has evolved over time - from the first draft - has definitely been influenced by different books.
Kevin: For me the journey goes up to Journeyman Project Turbo! back. It was the first sci-fi adventure I ever played and it was just amazing how much it captivated me. Incidentally, that was generally my start as an adventure player on the PC. Morpheus is another game that directly influenced Prominence. While it wasn't a sci-fi title, the game had a 360 panorama view and great cut scene transitions when it came out in 1998.
Then of course I also have to name scratches. Even if it had nothing to do with science fiction, it helped us realize that people with the skills we had at the time had a technological base to create a quality adventure game. System Shock 2 was also a huge inspiration. While it's not really an adventure game, we were able to learn a few important things in terms of both storytelling and design that have become the basis for some interesting features in Prominence.
AT: Please tell us how you went from fans to developers and tell us how the original idea of developing a game yourself was born.
Mike: Kevin and I had long flirted with the idea of making a game of our own at some point, but we lacked the right project, even if we had some ideas over the past ten years.
The original drive for Prominence came from the fact that we decided to create an interactive demo that would show what our studio can do. That's how it all started. Then I saw what the small team at Scratches had done and I immediately called Kevin to ask him if he was interested in starting our own adventure.
Kevin: When I was twelve years old, I made my first attempt to program a game myself - that was on the Commodore 64 at the time.
I didn't get that far and no one but me has ever played it, but that was something that got me thinking about programming and making computer games.
Mike and I talked about making a game back in 1998 and threw various ideas at our heads. At the time, circumstances prevented us from taking this step, but we always kept that thought in the back of our minds and when the right chance presented itself, we took it.
For me personally, game development connects two worlds that I love: programming and creative writing - combined with my love of games. For me, it's an opportunity to take the experience I've gained over thirty years as a player and invest it in making a great game.
AT: What is the conclusion so far about the development of your debut? Which elements were more painful, which ones gave you satisfaction?
Mike: The pre-production was fantastic. All of the brainstorming and experimenting with plot elements, characters and puzzles was just a lot of fun. We got out of these meetings every time and couldn't wait to really get started.
Then I really have to say that the community is really great. Everyone - from our indie colleagues to all of the adventure gamers who emailed us about prominence - helped keep us motivated and inspired.
Of course there were also many aha experiences that made us very happy. The first time we could move through a game with transitions and fully rendered backgrounds was a really happy day. Seeing cutscenes for the first time within the game; hear the speakers breathe life into the characters; all of these things were just great. Furthermore, it was a very rewarding feeling to find solutions in the course of development to solve the problems with the story, the gameplay or the interface.
As for the painful side, I have to say that it doesn't even appear in the actual development of Prominence. It's more like the sacrifices I have to make because of the development, because it's just that I do two full-time jobs at the same time. It's not that easy to work on a small budget for years, working six or seven days a week, only sleeping a few hours each night, etc. But once Prominence comes out, I hope to only have one job need: game development!
Kevin: Well, creating Prominence is pretty much a roller coaster ride with lots of ups and downs - but in the end it was a damn exciting ride. - laughs - The really fulfilling days for me are those when any cool new features are implemented in the engine or generally new building blocks meet in an updated build. We have had quite a bit of success with our design so far and these findings help us not to lose our drive.
The support from the adventure community was great too. We received a number of emails and inquiries via Facebook or other places and our trailer was very well received. Lots of adventure gamers out there eagerly await a good science fiction adventure game, so there's a certain amount of anticipation for Promienence. All this support is worth a lot to us.Especially on the days when you have to struggle with yourself in order not to lose focus.
AT: You've been working on Prominence for many years now, but it now looks like it's in sight. Please give us information about the current status of Prominence and tell us how much work is still ahead of you.
Mike: If you disregard a few puzzles that did not meet our expectations in practice, the game has been playable in a rough version from start to finish since last year. Now we are in the process of replacing the placeholder elements piece by piece with finished versions, polishing the interactions and the interface, finding bugs, optimizing performance, etc.
The language is probably the most advanced. Most of the voice recordings have been completed. A large number of the ambient sounds are also ready and the music is already a good part.
As far as the graphics are concerned, as I said, we are currently replacing the placeholders with the final graphics, which will keep us busy for the next few months.
Kevin: The engine used in Prominence is almost ready. There are a few features that we still want to revise, but most of the work on the engine has been completed. We still have to work a little on the display of text on the screen, just like on the load / storage system. Otherwise, everything has been scripted to such an extent that the game can be played through completely. Nevertheless, we are revising the scripting a bit and doing some fine-tuning that also affects the engine code. We have a very hard-working alpha team that helps us track down problems that still exist in the current version. Then we will soon bring the beta testers into play and watch with excitement how Prominence does under the observation of fresh pairs of eyes.
AT: You recently said that while you've spoken to numerous publishers, you don't want to sign a contract until the game is 90 percent complete. Please tell us how this decision came about and how optimistic you are to find a publisher for Prominence. What about a German version in this context, can a prognosis be made?
Mike: That's true. We've had a lot of inquiries from various publishers and I'm really excited about future collaboration. I hope we can find someone to help us make the game available to adventure gamers around the world.
As for the 90 percent mark, there are two reasons for this:
First, we want to make sure the publisher still exists when the game is ready to be released. That might sound strange, but we saw before our own eyes how much the publisher landscape has changed in recent years and many of the established publishers have perished and some of them have taken games from their portfolios with them into the bankruptcy estate, which of course leads to great delays and problems.
Second, we wanted our publisher demo to be as close to the final result as possible. This will nip any misunderstandings in the bud and still give the company concerned enough time to include the game in the product catalog in good time.
As for the German version, I can tell you it's very, very likely. We know how many adventure gamers are at home in Germany and even if we should publish Prominence ourselves, I assume that there will be a German localization.
Kevin: We knew from the start the importance of localization as the PC market is of course a global market and a large part of that market is outside of the US. Accordingly, we integrated some design features when developing the engine, which should help to localize the game more easily.
A German version is extremely important to us when it comes to localized versions. We are aware that Germany is a very important part of the adventure market and that there are a number of players here who are looking forward to the release of Prominence.
AT: Now let's move on to the actual content of the game. Please introduce our readers to the plot and the setting of Prominence.
Mike: The protagonist of Prominence is a member of the "Letarri-Vanguard-Cew", whose mission is to travel to a distant planet in order to build the first Letarri base on the surface, which will later be used by the colonists.
The crew consists of thirty members and their spaceship is designed to take the crew to the planet and then serve as a factory-like operations center in orbit, using nanotechnology to create structures and components that are flown in shuttles to the surface the crew operates with various vehicles, robots and machines.
Unfortunately, something went wrong with the mission, so it's up to the player to find out what happened and what to do about it.
Meanwhile, millions of Letarri slowly set out to populate the place they think will serve as their new home. The fate of the Letarri is now in the hands of the player.
Kevin: At the beginning of Prominence, the main character will wake up and not be sure what exactly happened around him. Of course, it won't be long before he finds out that he was part of the mission that was to explore this new world. So during the game, players will find out what happened on the colony and try to put things right again.
One of the nice things about Prominence is that Prominence is a game that was designed so that the main character never knows more than the player, or vice versa. The fact that the game is played from the first person point of view helps make the player feel like they really are part of the game world and let them experience things through the eyes of the main character.
AT: Your website mentions that at some point the player will have to make a choice between two paths that will not only lead to two different endings, but will also introduce further variations as the game progresses. Please tell us something about this aspect and answer the question of how linear or not prominence is in general.
Mike: The story is divided into four acts, each with different revelations. While the player explores the environment, he is confronted with puzzles and clues. Sometimes he can choose the sequence of his actions, but in general I would describe the game as a largely linear experience. We wanted to tie everything as tightly as possible to the narrative component, which means we had to minimize the kind of puzzles that had nothing to do with the actual development of the plot.
At the beginning, the player starts in a relatively small area and while he explores the environment in the course of the game, he will learn more about new areas and understand what purpose which place was built. Over time, the player will learn more and more places, learn more about the Letarri, the mission, the other characters and the environment, and figure out what went wrong in order to decide how to deal with it. At this point the plot splits into two paths.
Kevin: When Mike and I first discussed the concept of the game, we talked about how it was going to end. We came up with a really interesting ending, but then we realized that another option would be desirable and would make a lot of sense. At a critical point in the story, the player has to choose between two choices, each with their advantages and disadvantages. We noticed that the entire story was upgraded with this choice, so we immediately added it to the game. In the end, by the way, the gameplay also benefits, as players can play through Prominence after choosing one option and then go back to try out the other path.
AT: Please give us an idea of the type of gameplay and puzzles that await us in Prominence. When you compare the gameplay to other first-person titles in this context, which ones come to mind?
Kevin: A key aspect for us has always been that the player should feel like a real part of the game world. I'm sure you know the situation where you are playing an adventure game and all of a sudden you think, hey, something like this would never happen in real life. So I would never tie a sausage to a hinge to lure a cat through a door so that it knocks over a broom, which if it falls will pry open a door. - laughs - We want Prominence to feel real, so there shouldn't be anything for the player to do that feels completely unworldly. We took the science fiction setting and the underlying elements to create interesting puzzles that both challenge the player and never make them feel like none of this could have happened in the real world.
In a nutshell, Prominence offers inventory puzzles as well as other forms of puzzles. Inventory items can be taken apart, put back together and reused multiple times. Some puzzles have to be returned at a later point in time in order to solve them in a different way. In moments like this, we first teach the player the simple version of the puzzle, and then let him solve a more challenging version later.
Mike: As for comparisons, Prominence is a first-person title, so the way you interact with the environment and control it will be familiar from other titles. Of course, we also adhere to certain conventions: an inventory, a cursor that changes to indicate interactions, the use of zoom effects, etc.
In addition, I can say that we have built in a lot of transition animations so that the players don't get lost while moving.Much like it is the case in Morpheus, Obsidian and Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time.
AT: In a lot of first-person adventure games, there isn't really much interaction with other characters. What does it look like in Prominence? Will there be many other characters besides the main character or is the game based on the principle of solitary exploration?
Kevin: Well, the crew that started on this mission include quite a number of characters and the player will learn more about many of them. Most of them have their own faces, which the player can track down through audio notices, voice mails, files etc. In total, there are almost fifteen speaking roles plus a few characters who do not speak but still have their own story.
We are not very fond of dialogue trees. I mean, you are talking to someone and they know all of these things unlike you, but who knows, maybe you should already know some of these things by this time. Then you click your way through the conversation and if you're like me, you want to find out everything that person has to say, so you may click through all of the available options multiple times just to get all the information. The whole thing then becomes a kind of meta-game and that can prove quite damaging when it comes to the immersion aspect.
Kevin: When talking about character interactions in adventure games, the topic of dialog trees comes up automatically. Well, we have the basic principle that the player should feel like they are part of the game themselves. The problem with the dialog trees is that they force the player to come up with ready-made answers over and over again. If what you wanted to say doesn't appear in the list, you'll need to use one of the answers the developers have given you. Ultimately, we chose a different way of interacting with characters.
Prominence uses different things to tell its story: the central computer ANNIE, log files, e-mails and audio recordings. In this way, we can let the story unfold through what the player is doing while understanding the background of the story. It's a different approach, but I think it really helps the game and the story.
AT: A science fiction setting holds a lot of potential when it comes to atmosphere. Please try to describe the atmosphere of the game and the ways in which you are trying to create it.
Mike: As the player moves through the game, the mood swings back and forth between different poles, reflecting the latest story developments.
Some of these moods are created by the lighting effects of the surroundings. At the same time, the sound effects also play an important role. Some moods are also specifically amplified through the use of music. But the voice output also helps us to bring a certain note into play in certain situations.
It would be difficult, however, to go into detail on this point without giving too much away.
AT: Please introduce us to the technology that is used in Prominence and tell us something about some of the key features.
Kevin: Prominence uses an eninge we created that uses C and OpenGL, OpenAL technology for audio, and LUA for scripting. We programmed the game to run well on older systems without sacrificing the overall experience. We took advantage of various technologies so that the game works smoothly on as many configurations as possible. Prominence has full 360 ° movements and animated transitions between different nodes. We have also built in a lot of animated effects and sound effects. Our goal is to create an experience with the highest possible immersion potential and I am happy to say that our engine enables us to do just that.
AT: Another sci-fi adventure game that was in production for several years was recently released with Darkstar. Have you had the chance to play it yet? If so, what were your thoughts and to what extent there is perhaps a relationship between these titles, apart from the obvious FMV difference.
Mike: It's on my list of games that I have yet to play. Since we started producing Prominence, I've had very few opportunities to play other adventure games. It will be a lot of fun catching up on what I've missed in the meantime and I'm looking forward to it.
Kevin: I've followed Darkstar's development for years and I'm very interested to see what came out of it in the end. But just like Mike, I haven't gotten around to playing it yet. However, it is also on my catch-up list.
AT: Traditionally, the future prospects predicted for the adventure genre are not exactly positive and at the moment it is certainly no different. How do you assess the current status of the genre and the future prospects and to what extent do you believe that you can successfully establish yourself in this small niche market?
Mike: Yes, adventure games are part of a niche market, but it seems to me that there is a bit of a renaissance going on right now. When I look at how many brands Telltale is currently incorporating and when I hear that Back to the Future has sold better than all the other Telltale series, these are definitely indicators that give us courage.
I also believe that there is a serious proportion of hidden object players who will discover the adventure genre more and more as it represents the next logical step in their evolution as a player: more story, more gameplay, more immersion.
I also think there is a market for players our age - players who grew up with the original Atari 2600 or the C 64, who are looking for games that offer them a little more story than their reflexes aim. Or maybe they're just tired of shooting at everything that pops up on their screen.
As for our future, we have a whole list of potential projects for the future. If players like Prominence it would be great to put these ideas into action.
Kevin: It's kind of funny. I keep hearing about the death of the adventure genre and at the same time it seems like more and more titles are being released every year. Sure, it is certainly true that the larger publishers have turned their backs on adventure games and are moving into more lucrative genres. The first person shooter market has been huge for many years now, but I wonder if people will start talking about the death of this market as well, when the big publishers rely more and more on Farmville clones on Facebook in the future. The truth is that the gaming market as such is growing as more and more people begin to explore the possibilities that the gaming world offers on their computers, iPhones, etc. As part of this process, these players will learn about different types of games and that includes adventure games. Adventure games are only a small part of the game market, but if an adventure game is released and people buy it, then it doesn't matter if the adventure market is only two percent of the total market. What matters is that those two percent stand for, say, 100,000 or 200,000 potential buyers. It's these numbers that matter, not the percentage.
When we sat down before pre-production and did our market analysis, we looked at the budget of our game and calculated what we can expect in terms of revenue. Since we were of course aware that we were serving a niche, it was clear to us that we could not expect two million copies to be sold. We have already looked at the whole thing very realistically and yet we have come to the conviction that we can play this game and stay in business at the same time. Now, five years later, the market situation looks a bit more positive, not least because the possibility of digital distribution is now an important additional factor.
AT: Can you tell us something about future projects. Are you maybe going to do a sequel to Prominence next, or can we be excited about something completely different?
Mike: The world that we have created for Prominence is definitely suitable as a basis for further projects, a continuation is a possible approach, but time has to tell.
Kevin: During such a long development period, it is certainly normal to have a lot of ideas for other projects and we have gathered these ideas over time. It is certainly a list with the ideas for around twenty different games and as soon as Prominence is out we will take another look at all of these ideas and decide if there is something that we choose as our next project.
AT: Thank you again for taking the time to answer our questions in detail. We wish you all the best with the release of Prominence and hope for a bright future for Digital Media Workshop!
Mike: Many Thanks!
Kevin: Many Thanks!
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