Adventure-Treff: Thanks a lot for taking some time for us, it’s a pleasure to welcome you on Adventure-Treff. Please introduce yourselfs, your roles in the development of Prominence and Digital Media Workshop to our readers.
Mike Morrison: Thank you! My name is Mike Morrison. I started Digital Media Workshop, Inc. in 1997 and have been fortunate enough to keep busy ever since working on music production, design for print and web, 3D graphics production, and other media-related projects for a variety of clients.
For Prominence, I wear quite a few hats. Game design and story development are shared with Kevin. On the production side, Tom and I team up and create all the audio. All the art is also my responsibility. On the business side, I handle publisher relations, press/PR, marketing, legal and finance.
Kevin McGrath: Thank you! My name is Kevin McGrath. I’m the lead programmer for Prominence. I also share game design and story development with Mike.
A-T: You’re not working on Prominence on a full-time basis, so please give us an idea of what Digital Media Workshop is doing (and has been doing for many years) while you’re not investing a lot of blood, sweat and tears into your debut title Prominence.
Mike: When I’m not working on Prominence, I’m usually working on projects for clients in order to help fund Prominence development and to keep the doors open and lights on. It probably averages out to be a 50/50 split between game development and client work. I’ve been working between 80 and 90 hours per week for so long that I probably won’t know what to do with myself when I get back to having just one job to do.
A-T: Please introduce us to adventure games that left a lasting impression on the members of Digital Media Workshop and talk about the reasons. In addition to that: What games had a direct influence on Prominence in which ways?
Mike: I’m probably a lot like many adventure gamers. I have very fond memories of Curse of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, The Neverhood, the first two Gabriel Knight games, and some other classics.
My first real exposure to first-person adventures were Amerzone and Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time – which I always forget to mention when people ask me about which sci-fi adventures I’ve played.
As far as games that more directly influenced Prominence… Well, back in the day, I really liked some of the puzzle ideas and the way they tied directly into the narrative in Spycraft: The Great Game. Using the Kennedy Assassination Tools to triangulate the location of the assassin and then track down his identity using facial recognition, for example. It was primitive, of course, but there was a sense of realism to it. Still Life has some of that too with the luminol, the fake ID, and the fingerprints. It’s rooted in reality (or what can easily be perceived as reality) and that makes a difference to me because it helps maintain the immersion. We tried to take a similar approach in Prominence. “What does this device do? How does it work? Why does it matter? Why is it here?”
Technologically, I was pretty stunned by the engine technology of Myst IV: Revelation when it first came out. In the context of the time, it had some very good compositing of characters onto the panoramic backgrounds and then there were animated CG elements happening, too, and it all worked together. They really tried to push the immersion envelope with the variable focus and the touch interaction with all the different materials. The audio was fantastic, too.
Of course, Scratches was inspirational in terms of the scope of what a small team could do. I actually bought it for each member of the team and made everyone play it before we rolled into production.
As far as inspiration for the game and its story, that’s probably more the result of books and films more than games. Kevin and I are former NaNoWriMo winners and I think part of how the story of Prominence evolved from my original treatment was definitely influenced by some of the ideas in one of his novels.
Kevin: I can trace the games that have had a lasting impression on me all the way back to Journeyman Project Turbo! This was really the first sci-fi adventure game I played and it struck me how involved I got with the game. This game was my first real introduction to adventure gaming on the PC. Morpheus was also another game that directly influenced Prominence. Even though it wasn't science-fiction based, the game provided a 360-degree panoramic view and cutscene transitions, which added to the immersion level when it came out in 1998.
Scratches, of course, was a direct influence. Even though it too was not a sci-fi game, it showed Mike and I that the technology was there to create adventure games of good quality with the skills and equipment we already possessed. Finally, a game that was a big inspiration was System Shock 2. Although it's not technically an adventure game, the game provided inspiration in terms of both story-building and game design. It provides the basis for some interesting features of Prominence.
A-T:How did you turn from “just” adventure game fans into adventure game developers? Please talk about your initial idea to make games yourself and how you came up with the concept of your first game.
Mike: Kevin and I had flirted with the idea of making games before. We hadn’t found the right project to go the distance, but we had a bunch of ideas over the span of the past 10 years or so.
The impetus for Prominence was initially to build some kind of interactive demo to show what the studio could do. That’s how it all started. Then I saw what the small team did on Scratches, and I called Kevin right away to see if he’d be interested in making an adventure game.
Kevin: When I was 12 years old, I took my first stab at making a computer game. This was back on the old Commodore 64 computer. It didn't go anywhere and I think I was pretty much the only person who played it, but it was something that started me thinking about programming and making computer games.
Mike and I spoke about doing a game together back in 1998, where we were tossing different ideas around. However, at that time, our circumstances prevented us from really dedicating ourselves to making a game, but it was something that was always in the back of our minds to do, and when the opportunity presented itself, we took it.
Personally, for myself, game development presents the best of two worlds that I love-- programming and creative writing-- wrapped together within my love of games. For me, it's an opportunity to take my experience from playing computer games for over 30 years and apply it to making a great game.
A-T:What’s your personal summary of the development of your first game so far and which elements have been rather painful and which ones were rather joyful?
Mike: Pre-production was a blast. Brainstorming and refining plot elements, characters, puzzles, key moments in the story – all that work was amazing and empowering. We’d get out of those meetings and couldn’t wait to start cranking away.
The community has been amazing. Everyone – from our fellow indie developers right through to the adventure-hungry gamers who have emailed us or posted online about Prominence – has been a constant source of motivation and inspiration.
There were many joyous “firsts”, too. The first time we were able to walk around in parts of the game with transitions and fully rendered art was a happy day. Seeing cinematics for the first time in-game; hearing characters come to life with the voice actors; all those things are just great. Coming up with elegant solutions to resolve story, gameplay, or interface issues along the way has been hugely rewarding, too.
To be honest, the pain for me hasn’t so much been in Prominence development. It’s been the sacrifices as a result of Prominence development because I’m really doing two full-time jobs. It’s a bit of a grind to live for years on a shoestring budget, working six or seven days every week, getting only a few hours of sleep each night, etc. Once Prominence is released, hopefully I’ll only have one job to do: to make more games!
Kevin: Well, the development of Prominence has been something of a roller-coaster ride, lots of ups and downs, but quite the thrilling ride. *laughs* For me, the joyful experiences are the days when some new and neat feature gets implemented into the engine, or the engine and design work meet the new art and audio with each build. This is tempered though, by the reality of living in the current economy and living on limited means. We've had some great successes with the game design and that keeps us going.
Support from the adventure game community has been fantastic as well. We've gotten lots of emails and responses from newsletters and our Facebook page and our trailer was very well-received. A lot of adventure gamers out there are looking for a good science-fiction adventure game, so Prominence is highly anticipated. So, the support from the community has been helping us forge forward, encouraging us on those days where we're struggling to get things done.
A-T: You’ve been working on Prominence for many years now, but it seems like the release is finally in sight. Please give us an idea of the current status and how much work is still ahead of you.
Mike: Aside from a couple of puzzles where the initial prototypes didn’t meet quality standards, the game was playable from start-to-finish in raw/low-poly form last year. Now we’re gradually replacing all placeholder elements with the finished versions, polishing the UI and the interactions, squashing bugs, optimizing performance, etc.
The audio is probably the farthest along. Most of the voiceovers are done. A lot of the environmental audio has been established and a good portion of the music is done. It’s in great shape.
On the art side of things, we’re in the ongoing process of replacing all the placeholder environments and graphics with the final versions, and all of those visuals will continue to get a lot more love in the next few months.
Kevin: The engine that Prominence uses is nearly complete; there are a few more features that we would like to tidy up before release, but for the most part, the engine is complete and ready for release. Improvements still need to be made on some of the code rendering text to the screen, as well as improvements to the load and save system. We've already built in the scripts needed to run the game from start to finish, but we're tweaking them now and adjusting them with new changes to the engine code, as well as making adjustments as needed to make the story run a little more cohesively. We have a dedicated alpha team who have been busy helping us find the glaring issues with the game as it exists, and letting us know where the bugs are. Our expectation is to be bringing in beta testers to see how the game fares under “fresh eyes”.
A-T: You’ve recently stated that you have been talking to quite some publishers but don’t want to sign a publishing deal until you reached a 90% milestone. Please give us some insights into that decision and tell us how hopeful you are about finding a publisher when the 90% milestone has been reached. In addition to that: How optimistic are you that our readers can also look forward to a German version of Prominence?
Mike: That’s true. We have had many publisher inquiries from a variety of respectable companies. I’m very excited about the prospects ahead. Hopefully we can find a great publisher or two to help bring Prominence to adventure gamers everywhere.
There are two main reasons for bringing the game to 90% before showing it:
First, we want to be sure that the publisher will still be around for the launch. That might sound a bit silly, but the landscape of game publishing has been changing before our eyes in recent years and many well-known publishers have gone under, sometimes taking contracted deals with them and tangling publication rights up in the process.
Second, we want the publisher demo to be as close to the final experience as possible. This will minimize any chances of misinterpretation about the final product, while allowing enough time in the production schedule for the publisher to work the game into their schedule for the year.
I can tell you that a German version is very, very likely. We recognize that Germany is home to a great number of discerning adventure gamers. Even if we self-publish Prominence, I expect that we will localize the game text into German.
Kevin: From the outset of the project, we've been well aware of the need for localization: the computer gaming market is a world-wide market now, and a large market for adventure games is present outside the United States. So, as the engine was being developed, we incorporated into the design several features which should help localize the game when it's released.
As far as international versions of the game are concerned, we are anticipating German as one of the primary languages we want to see Prominence released in. We know that Germany has one of the largest markets for adventure gaming, and we know that there are quite a number of German gamers anxiously awaiting Prominence's release.
A-T: Let’s get to the actual content of the game now. Obviously, it’s a good time to introduce the plot and the setting of the game to our readers.
Mike: The protagonist of Prominence is a member of the Letarri vanguard crew. Their mission is to go to this far-off planet, New Letarr, and build the first Letarri base on the surface for the incoming colonists.
There are just over 30 members in the vanguard crew, but their vessel is designed to travel to the planet and then become an orbital factory, using nanotechnology to fabricate structures and components that are shuttled down to the surface and assembled by the small crew and a variety of vehicles, robots, and machines.
Unfortunately, the mission has gone awry and bad things have happened. The player has to unravel the clues, determine what went wrong, and then decide what they want to do about it.
Meanwhile, millions of Letarri are slowly making their way to what they believe will be their new home. Their fate rests in the hands of the player.
Kevin: The player begins Prominence waking up and unsure about what's happened. Of course, early on, the player learns that they were part of this vanguard mission to explore this new world. So, during the game, the player will be learning about what happened with the colony, what went wrong, and will try to fix it.
Another nice thing about Prominence as a game is that it's designed in such a way that there's never a time when you're playing that your character knows more than you do, or vice versa. Since you're playing from a first-person perspective, this adds to the immersion level quite a bit, so that you learn things as your character learns things.
A-T:Your website mentions that at some point in the game players will have to make a decision between two paths that will not only lead to different endings, but will also result in some differences during the actual game. Please talk about this aspect and tell us how non-linear or linear Prominence is in general.
Mike: The story is broken down into four main acts and there are a series of reveals and plot developments in each of them. As the player progresses through the game, they encounter puzzles and clues. Sometimes they can work through in any order they like, but generally I’d call it mostly a linear experience. We wanted to tie everything closely into the narrative, and that pushed us to minimize the occurrence of puzzles that had little to do with plot development.
We start the player off in a relatively small area, and as they explore, they learn about each new area and its purpose – what it means to the colony and why it’s there. Over time, more areas open up and the player continues to learn about the Letarri, the mission, the other characters, the environment, and what went wrong so that they can decide what they want to do about it. That’s where the story splits.
Kevin: When Mike and I first sat down to talk about the game concept, we talked about how it was going to end. We came up with a really interesting ending, but then realized that another option was also possible and highly desirable. At a critical point in the story, the player will have to make a choice between two options, both with advantages and disadvantages. It actually enhanced the entire storyline that this decision point was present, and so we made sure to include it in the game. And in the end, it also increases gameplay, since players can finish one option and then go back and play the other one.
A-T:Please give us an idea of the type of gameplay and puzzles that players can expect from Prominence. In addition: If you’d compare the sort of gameplay to any other first-person adventure game, which game would come to your mind first?
Kevin: One of the first design tenets that we established for Prominence was that the player should feel an immersive experience while playing the game. I'm sure that you've had the situation in an adventure game where you start to do something in the game and go, “This would never happen in real life; I would never use a pork sausage tied to a fishing line to lure a cat through a door so that it knocked a broom over which unlatched a door that I was trying to get through.” *laughs* We wanted to base Prominence in reality and believability, so that the things that the player does in the game don't involve fantastical leaps of imagination. We took the science-fiction universe and the components unique to it, and used the elements in it to form interesting puzzles that both challenge the player and yet never let them feel like their experience was somehow some strange set of circumstances that would never happen in the real world.
That all being said, Prominence includes both inventory-based and GUI-based puzzles. Inventory items can be taken apart, put back together again, and reused several times. Puzzles may be revisited again to do different things, and, in a few instances, we took the approach of teaching the player the basic puzzle and then having them come back later to do a harder version.
Mike: As far as comparisons go, Prominence is first-person, so the basic controls and interaction with the world are probably similar to most first-person adventures. We do keep to certain adventure game conventions – an inventory system, cursor changes to show interaction, zooms, or movement, that kind of thing.
We have a lot of transition animations so that the player doesn’t get lost or confused as they move around. Morpheus, Obsidian, and Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time have a similar feature.
A-T:Many first-person adventure games don’t really have much character interaction. How about Prominence? Will there be many other characters despite the playable characters or is it rather a solitary exploration game?
Mike: Well, there’s a whole cast of characters that makes up the crew of the mission. The player will learn about many of them and most of them have their own stories and arcs that the player can follow through audio clues, voicemails, files, etc. There are about 15 speaking roles, plus a few who don’t speak, but have their own stories.
We’re not big fans of dialog trees. You start talking to someone and they know all this stuff and you don’t, but maybe you’re supposed to know them already. And then you start going through the discussion and really – if you’re an adventure gamer who’s anything like me – you want to hear and learn everything they have to say, so you start talking to them over and over choosing different responses just to experience it all and gather up all the information. It becomes a little meta-game that can really kill the immersion.
Kevin: When one talks of character interaction in adventure games, the subject of dialogue trees invariably comes up. Our design document had as a basic principle that the person playing the game was going to be themselves in the game; that is, that they acted and made decisions based upon who they were, as a player. The problem with dialogue trees is that it enforces a certain number of predictable responses by the player... if the reply that you would offer isn't on the list, then you have to choose some other response from the list that the developer decided would be your choices. In addition, people also generally run through the dialogue trees until they are exhausted through the possibilities, in order to glean whatever information they can get. In the end, we decided on a different approach to character interaction.
Prominence uses a combination of a character in the form of ANNIE, the central computer, as well as the logs, emails, and audio feeds from cameras in order to tell the story. In this way, we can tell the story of the player's journey through the game through what they do, while they at the same time experience the story of what happened prior to them starting the game. It's a different approach, and one that I think serves the game and the story better.
A-T: A sci-fi setting contains a lot of potential when it comes to atmosphere. Please talk about the atmosphere of Prominence and try to describe how you’re trying to create a certain kind of mood in the game.
Mike: The narrative has an overall tone, and as the player goes through the game, the tone shifts between different moods to mirror the plot developments.
Some of the mood is set through the environmental lighting, some of it is through environmental sound effects, and some of it is reinforced by music cues. The voice-over performances help set the tone at various times as well.
It would be hard to talk specifically about some of our inspirations without giving away too much.
A-T: Please introduce us to the technology you’re using in Prominence and tell us about some of the key-features.
Kevin: Prominence uses an in-house engine to run the game, built using C and OpenGL, and incorporating OpenAL technology for the audio system and LUA for scripting. We've built the game so that it runs on lower-end machines while still maintaining a good gaming experience. We've taken advantage of several key technologies to make sure the game runs smoothly and flawlessly on a variety of machine configurations. Prominence features full 360-degree panning and animated transitions between nodes. We also included animated effects and sounds, and some full screen visual effects. Our goal is to provide a seamlessly immersive experience and I'm happy to say that our game engine achieves this quite well.
A-T: Another sci-fi adventure game which has been in production for many years has been recently released: Darkstar. Did you have a chance to check it out already? If you did, what were your thoughts and in which ways do you think that there might be a kinship between the games or are we talking about two completely different kinds of games (aside of the obvious FMV difference) that only have the sci-fi theme in common?
Mike: It’s on my list to play. I’ve only had a few opportunities to even play adventures since we started development. Catching up will be a lot of fun, and I’m really looking forward to it!
Kevin: I've been watching the development of Darkstar for several years now and have been interested in seeing how the game turned out, but, like Mike, I haven't had the time to play it yet. It, too, is on my list of games to catch up on.
A-T: Traditionally, the future perspectives for the adventure game genre aren’t being described as too bright by a lot of people. How do you judge the current state of the genre and its future perspectives and how far do you think that you’ll be able to successfully find a place within this small niche market?
Mike: Yes, adventures are a niche market, but it seems like there is a bit of a renaissance going on right now, such as Telltale Games’ acquisitions of additional IPs and the reports that Back to the Future has outsold all their other games to date. Those are encouraging indicators.
I believe there is also a measurable percentage of hidden-object gamers who will continue to “discover” point-and-click adventures and become fans of the genre because it’s the next evolutionary step for their gaming habits – more story, more varied gameplay, more immersion.
In addition, I think that there is a market for gamers in our age bracket – players who grew up on the original Atari 2600 or Commodore 64 and are looking for something with a bit more story and maybe a bit less reflex, or maybe they’re just tired of shooting everything that shows up on the screen.
As for our future, we have a whole list of potential future projects. If gamers enjoy Prominence, it would be a real treat to bring some of those ideas to life.
Kevin: It's funny, but I keep hearing about the death of the adventure gaming market, and yet every year, there are seemingly more and more adventure games being put out by developers. I do think that a lot of the bigger publishers have moved on from adventure games, as other genres seem to be more lucrative. The first-person shooter market has been roaring along for years now, but I wonder if people will talk about the death of first-person shooters when the big publishing houses move on to start making Farmville clones on Facebook. The truth of the matter is, the gaming market is ever increasing as more and more people get involved in gaming on their computers, iPhones, or whatever technology they can play games on. As this market grows, people will shift to different genres, and adventure gaming will be one of them. Adventure games are a small percentage of the gaming market, but, when an adventure game releases and people buy it, it's not important that the number of people who buy it represent only 2% or something of the gaming market. It matters that 2% of the market represents 100,000 or 200,000 people or something. It's the raw numbers, not the percentages that matter.
When we sat down and did the market research even before we started pre-production, we took a look at the budget for the game and what returns we could expect. Knowing that adventure gaming is a niche market, we understood that we weren't shooting for 2 million units sold... our expectations were much more realistic five years ago, and even then, with only a mediocre showing, we still decided that we could make the game and remain in business. Five years later, the market is only looking more favorable, not less, particularly when you factor in the opportunity presented in digital distribution.
A-T: Any ideas about future projects you can tease perhaps? Maybe a sequel to Prominence or something totally different?
Mike: The world we’ve created for Prominence could definitely support other projects, including a sequel, but only time will tell.
Kevin: During the production of Prominence, as with, I think, any long-term creative project, the mind wanders to other ideas, and so, we started collecting these ideas that we had for other games. We have a running list of some twenty game ideas that we've collected, and once Prominence is released, we will likely look back at them, talk about them, and see if there are any that we want to try as our next project.
A-T: Again, thanks a lot for doing this interview - it was a pleasure to welcome you on Adventure-Treff.de. We wish you all the best with the release of Prominence and hope for a bright future for Digital Media Workshop!