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Day Four - Evolving the Game

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So far we’ve heard some new art, seen some new music, and even got to chat with Naija herself about beavers, pigeons, game design, and my uncanny ability to sing like a woman! Today, we’re going to stay on that “behind-the-scenes” tip by giving you a bit of insight into the history of our development, as well as a our process. In other words, “what have we been up to these past two years?!” The real tale is much longer than any one blog post can contain, but I’ll try my best to capture the spirit of it all. This is going to be a fairly text-heavy Day, so I hope at least some of you enjoy reading. ;)

Alec and I met when I was working on I’m OK, the Jack Thompson-inspired satire, and he contributed some great sound and music for that game. During the downtime, we started talking about games and game-making, and eventually settled on collaborating on something. Of course, we had no idea at the time that it was going to lead us on this path. And it’s probably a good thing - had we known what was down the road, we probably would have dropped dead from anxious excitement before we even started!

I think Alec and I are both “just do it” types of guys, in that, when we want to make something, we just start making it, and don’t do a lot of hand-wringing beforehand. This is a nice strength, and key to have in a partner, I believe… but only for the right kinds of people. It also influenced greatly our style of development. We have personally written surprisingly few design documents in these past two years, preferring to just implement things first, then question it, toss it out, and try again. It’s from this process that the idea of “evolving a game” as opposed to “creating a game” springs - bad ideas are simply weeded out from natural selection.

Aquaria really began a few years before I met Alec, as a simple prototype, in which a mermaid (at this point a real “mermaid mermaid,” complete with fish tail and clamshells) swam around a little room underwater. It’s funny, while other portions of the engine have been built from the ground up or rewritten, the movement code has changed relatively little from that first prototype. I wish either Alec or I had that version of the game on us right now, but sadly, we don’t! I’ll get Alec to post a screenshot from it on the forums (or perhaps the actual binary) once he can get a hold of it.

Side note: you might find this funny, but we were working on a game briefly before Aquaria that we felt was too big… Aquaria was supposed to be a “smaller, manageable project.” I don’t want to go into too much detail about the first project, but you can see some of the graphics from it here, on my personal site. It was a procedural role-playing game, of sorts.

The movement in Aquaria is, I feel, one of its most unique aspects, and what ultimately got me on board with this idea. (Although I’ve always had kind of a crush on the ocean, too. As I mentioned embarrassingly in my IGF speech, I used to spend hours drawing fish with large teeth as a kid.) Once that was decided, we got to work, passing ideas back and forth and, well, trying things out with art and code as we went along. (Like I said, neither of us likes to waste a lot of time on over-planning!)

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At this point in time, we didn’t have the nifty character animation system we have now. Nor was there a level editor. But, looking back at some of these old screens, the game doesn’t look too much different, fundamentally, than it does now. But it was still a long road to get from there to here!

Since we were coming off of RPGs, we still had RPGs on the mind for the first part of our development. And as we’re both big fans of the Final Fantasy series, it was easy to use that as a common jumping off point for ideas. As a result, early storylines for the game were rife with (now that I think about it), fairly cliché fantasy RPG ideas: towns and castles bustling with people, kings giving quests, and things of that sort. It was definitely a big turning point for us when we realized that we were going in the wrong direction with that. I can remember very clearly that moment… a phone conversation where we agreed that what was important to the game was being lost in the noise. Our fascination with Naija as a character, and the idea of her exploring this vast undersea world, kept growing, but was being drowned out (if you’ll pardon the pun) by the text-based dialogue, quests, and large number of nebishes in the game. So we decided to cut away the chaff, so to speak. We tossed it out and took a step back.

Two important decisions were made toward the middle of development (the summer before our IGF submission) that made a huge impact on where we went next. One was the decision to go with voice acting instead of text-based dialogue. As you know, we love Jenna, and she is absolutely perfect for the role. But to assume that one will find someone like that is… well, to put it bluntly, I don’t know what Alec was smoking when he thought we could do it, but I’m glad he gave me a hit. At the time I was playing a bit of Dungeon Siege 2 on the side, and that game has some of the worst voice acting I’ve ever heard. The idea that, lacking the credentials and resources of a commercial game company, we could do better, seemed like a longshot, for sure. But why not! This development has been built on well-meaning but palpably naive notions like that one. It has paid off in spades - Jenna’s voice easily makes the game many times better than it could have been without her.

The other decision was to move from a keyboard/mouse control scheme to a mouse-only scheme (mind you, keyboard/mouse is still available for those who want it). This idea came from my Dad, of all people! I don’t know what to say, except that one day while Alec and I were staying at my parents’ house working on the game, my Dad walked in and told us we should make the game playable with just the mouse, because it was easier. (He is an avid Diablo player, so that may have had something to do with it.)

It may not seem all that important, but moving to a mouse-only control scheme colored every design decision we made from then on. Every time we wanted to implement a new system into the game (such as Naija’s singing interface), it had to work with just the mouse. When we could easily have just added a new key to the keyboard to do something, we had to somehow make it work with two buttons. It was frustrating and difficult, but the end result is that there is no waste… we had wanted to make the game streamlined, and this, in some sense, was forcing us to do just that.

It’s amazing, but both these decisions were made more or less right before the deadline for IGF. That’s been kind of characteristic of this development… ultimately, we haven’t let time ever be a factor in our decision-making, only what has been good for the game. This has, ultimately, saved us time, I believe, much in the same way getting back on the freeway after you’ve make a wrong exit can save you time when you’re driving somewhere.

From IGF on, we’ve stuck closely to that idea that the game is fundamentally about two things: Naija, and Aquaria. Naija, who is a real character, with real feelings, dealing with her loneliness and trying to find herself… and Aquaria, this massive world which Naija must explore to understand where she came from. How does her story fit into the story of Aquaria?

That isn’t to say that there weren’t still a lot of tough hurdles from then on out, but the foundation, at least, was set!

One thing that’s interesting is that the game’s story and main themes echo, in a lot of ways, our development of the game, and how we feel as creators. To explain how would spoil things, but suffice to say, you may see a lot of conscious and unconscious parallels. Alec and I both strongly believe that the best games are the ones that say something about their developers’ on a personal level. And the development of this game has had such a strong impact on both of us that it was inevitable that there’d be some indirectly meta references in there.

We’ve come a long way! Thanks for reading. (Wow, an hour-long interview and now this tome to read. You guys are patient. ;) )

A Q U A _ _ _

25 Responses to “Day Four - Evolving the Game”

  1. dg10050 Says:

    Hey look. You guys can spelled Aqua! ;)
    I’m loving these posts. They really build up some anticipation for the release.

  2. shinygerbil Says:

    Nice to see some of your thoughts, and some of the origins of this game. (God, I’m glad it wasn’t made into a Final Fantasy-style RPG…)

    Also, nearly first post!

  3. Syn Says:

    Wow, very interesting read. I actually dropped a project not long ago for the same reasons as you guys dropped Eminent Kingdoms. Being ambitious and being unrealistic are two different things one needs to learn one day.

    Funny thing, when I saw the first sketch before even reading, I was like, is that alternate art for Naija? O_o Lol

  4. dg10050 Says:

    Wow. It looks like I can’t even spell “spell”. :(

  5. RyanA Says:

    Great story, Grandpa D. It’s always wonderful to learn about what goes into making a game. We as an audience only get to see the end product, but I think that the process involved is just as interesting as the end product itself!

  6. D3stiny_Sm4sher Says:

    Good read — to see how far you guys have come is excellent.

    I continue to look forward to the final release with great anticipation.

  7. p3ter_st0ry Says:

    Great post Derek! It’s nice to see how the game has progressed visually :)

  8. illithid235 Says:

    Well, I asked for some info on development, and here it is. I was a bit worried before when I read that ‘the story used to be more complex, but we streamlined it’, but after reading this post I feel much better. You always hope that the deleted scenes, as it were, don’t actually contribute much more than was already there, and it seems that’s how it’s going to be with this game. Can’t wait til Friday!!

  9. Karn Says:

    Very awesome, and I’m finding it even harder to wait as Friday draws closer! Even anticipating the blog updates is hard. The graphics comparison is very cool, it’s nice to see that the game’s come so far from then.

  10. crukid Says:

    I can’t wait! Whoever though of the 7 Days of Aquaria must have secretly tapped into my uber-impatient side…great writeup, Derek!

  11. Shih Tzu Says:

    Neat! This behind-the-scenes thing reminds me, maybe you should do like Portal and add a developer commentary patch down the line.

    Also, regarding the voice acting — is there going to be an option for subtitles for hearing-impaired players?

  12. Alec Says:

    Yeah, we have subs. :)

  13. renkin Says:

    Nice read. I need to try this game. Fortunately, the deadline for this one school project is Friday, so I can play it in the weekend without remorse. :)

  14. Jet Says:

    Well, that was definitely worth my time to read. I’m taking a break from homework, and thought what a better thing to do than to read about AQUARIA!!! o man, my roomate was counting down for mass effect for like, 50 days. If i would have known the day that Aquaria would come out 50 days in advance, i think i would have died from excitement and anticipation before day 30. three days left!!!!!!

  15. Hiro Says:

    Man, its so true that just waiting for each day’s update is a killer! 7 days! 3 days left! I finnish school this Friday, woot!

    I like this whole learning about development thing. As someone who would DREAM of making a game like this in an indie fasion its really interesting to read how it goes. Good read Derek.

  16. Tr00jg Says:

    Great write-up! It gives me inspiration.

  17. duh Says:

    not to be mean, and i wouldn’t have said anything, but the whole voice acting thing.
    i wasn’t going to say anything untill you ripped yet another mainstream title.i was looking as the odin sphere trailer just before i saw the aquaria trailer. and the voice acting of the 2 was what stood out for me.
    odin sphere’s voice was so full of life, so professional, with so much emotion and just made you that much more interest in the game,
    yet, on the other hand aquaria’s voice was really lifeless and kinda dull, and i thought to myself, hmm, this can be much better.

  18. Alec Says:

    Huh? I think Derek dissed Dungeon Siege 2’s voice acting, not Odin Sphere.

    I love a lot of mainstream games that have great voice acting. :)

  19. Derek Says:

    If you read any mainstream review of Dungeon Siege 2, they will point out that the voice acting in DS2 is “uneven” at best, and “terrible” on average.

    Also, what Alec said. ;)

  20. SBKT Says:

    All that text was hard to follow. I wish I wouldn’t try to read so fast.

    I thought that sketch was cool, but then I imagined a medieval GTA.

  21. shinygerbil Says:

    I swear, I just scrolled up and that guy was winking at me.

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