Game Designer Interview: Herculean Effort

In the first of a series of game designer interviews, Ian and Greg Schlaepfer of Herculean Effort, a two man team of independent adventure game developers, have joined us to talk about their projects and a bit about their upcoming game, The Find. Their previous games include Apprentice I & II, which are both available for free on the web. If you haven’t checked them out yet, I strongly suggest it! They are a lot of fun, with a fantastic old school feel. In this interview, we chat about some of the possible pitfalls of independent game development and the Herculean Effort team shares a bit of wisdom for those who may be considering creating their own independent games.

Alan: First, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I understand that both of you are quite busy. Currently, Herculean Effort is creating and distributing their games for free, which is greatly appreciated by the gaming public. They are also of utmost quality and a lot of fun to play! What is it, exactly, that made you first want to start working on these games and give them away for free?

Greg: Ever since playing LucasArts classics like Day of the Tentacle, Indiana Jones, etc. we’ve wanted to make our own games. The adventure game genre has always been a favorite. So although we had the resources to make games (Ian being a talented artist, and I being musically inclined), we were lacking in the programming area.

It wasn’t until a few years ago I discovered the wonderful AGS from a link off a Website I found on Google. It was a dream come true for us, and I immediately begun learning and practicing the scripting (this was one of the very first versions of AGS, so the interface wasn’t as user-friendly as we know it know).

Why are our games free? Well everyone likes free stuff, and we weren’t sure we could match the commercial standards for games. That, and if we were to sell a game, there’s some tricky stuff to figure out, like currency issues and shipping and paying taxes. Hey, AGS is free, too. Don’t you love it when there’s good free stuff out there?

Alan: Oh yes, I definitely have a love of free stuff. My motto is and always will be that if it’s free then it’s for me!

However, it certainly seems like a lot of work, developing an adventure game as large as Apprentice II. About how much time and work did it take to develop the game? Also, were there any specific challenges that you faced which other independent game developers may benefit from knowing about?

Greg: It’s a great motto, but not everything free is for me, though, because of spyware (I won’t mention any names).

In the making of Apprentice 1, Ian and I pretty much spent a few hours each day working on it. We started working on it in the beginning of summer 2003, and finished it at the end of that summer. We begun work on Apprentice 2 in winter 2003, and the trailer was released soon after. I’d say I (not sure if I can speak for Ian) spent less time every day on Apprentice 2 then when I worked on Apprentice 1. I’d spend an hour or two every other day. Towards the end we ran a tight deadline, imposed by the pleas of impatient fans, so I ended up working over 2 hours every evening, and sometimes going late into the night.

To do with challenges we faced, I’d say writer’s block was the toughest. Except I guess you’d call it “worker’s block”, though. Okay, it was laziness. It’s hard to bring yourself to get down and work sometimes. Fortunately, Ian is quite the taskmaster. If I “still haven’t gotten around” to working on something, he really knows how to make me feel bad. Namely, ask me every hour if I’ve gotten whatever it is done. Hey, it works.

To do with scripting challenges, I take each challenge one at a time. For example, the Navy Joe pocket game. At first it seemed really difficult to script — or even impossible. But taking it one line of code at a time I was able to script it.

Really, most everything is possible, just some things take a lot more effort and time.

My message to fellow independent game designers would be this: finish the game! It’s hard finishing a project, I know. Without Ian and his drive to finish Apprentice I probably would’ve never. So just get used to finishing games, and make it a point to finish them. Start making little games. You get the idea.

Alan: It’s fairly obvious that you put a lot of work into the design and flow of the puzzles in Apprentice. Making an adventure game takes a great deal of design work, figuring out the puzzles, characters and everything else. The puzzles in Apprentice 2, especially, were very interwoven and challenging. How did you go about designing the complex world of Apprentice? Was there anything that you used to help plan all the puzzles? Did you look to any games for examples, or use any resources to learn design techniques?

Ian: I look to old legends and mythology for a good deal of my inspiration. With their quest elements, they have so much in common with adventure games. Let me give you several examples. My inspiration for the rat puzzle in Apprentice 2 stemmed from the Pied Piper story, except I exchanged the “luring” element for a “repelling” one. I drew the golem puzzle from an ancient Jewish story, which included the earth, air, fire, and water elements. Besides that, I tried to throw in a variety of puzzle types, so the player isn’t faced with a string of puzzles that involve combining inventory items or simple exchanges with NPCs.”

Alan: Your next game, The Find, is definitely quite a bit different from the environments of Apprentice. What prompted you to make the switch to what appears to be a darker design?

Greg: We actually had designed The Find before Apprentice. After making Apprentice, we learned a lot about scripting, puzzle design, etc., and felt it was necessary to completely rethink The Find (except for the wonderful plot, of course). On a side note, I don’t know if you remember, but there was a demo of The Find out a few years ago. It was okay, but there were some bugs, and the art wasn’t very good.

As far as switching from the cheery, whimsical world of Apprentice to the darker, more mysterious environment of The Find, I think both our audience and we could use the change. I mean, after creating two Apprentice games, it started getting kinda monotonous. The Find will provide a great contrast.

After playing The Find, I just know everyone will be begging for a sequel for that rather than Apprentice 3. Knowing us, we’ll then make Apprentice 3.

Alan: From the concept art on your Website, it looks as if you may be making the move to 3D rendered characters. Do you plan on using pre-rendered 3D characters in your upcoming game, or do you still plan on making hand drawn graphics? If you are moving to 3D, what kind of advantages and disadvantages has this move brought into play?

Greg: Yeah, we’re going for the 3D rendered characters because that way we can have eight angles of smooth walking and lots of character animations. The 3D characters will be cel-shaded and carefully crafted so they will look like they were drawn in 2D. I’d say the disadvantage to using 3D characters is that it’s harder to animate them realistically. But in the long run, using 3D saves a lot of time — once I have the model of a character finished, I can make animations as smooth as I want and from as many angles as I want.

The backgrounds, however, are made in a very different process. Ian first draws a rough sketch of the background on paper and then scans it in the computer. After that, I construct a 3D model of the background to fit over the sketch. We then render the 3D background and print it out. Using the printout as a lighting and perspective reference, Ian draws the final sketch. After scanning this final sketch into the computer, he draws over it in a graphics program. The final result looks really cool, and is definitely worth the long process. You’ll just have to imagine it.

Alan: Again, Greg and Ian, thank you very much for taking the time for this interview! Is there anything that you would like the readers to know about your upcoming game, The Find, which we have not already covered?

Greg: I just want to let everyone know that we’re going to take our time making this the best game it can be. That’s why there really is no official release date (I think we put one up on our Website, but that’s just a loose estimate). We’re going to make sure every element of the game is carefully and skillfully created, so there won’t be a single piece of art, or single song that we aren’t proud of. I know a lot of you are anxious for another game, but The Find will be well worth the wait.

So if you haven’t already, be sure to check out Herculean Effort’s already released Apprentice games and definitely keep an eye out for their upcoming title, The Find. I already played the two Apprentice games and completely loved them. This is very apparent from my review. The puzzles in Apprentice are fantastic and the art, while very old school, is very impressive.

Keep up the good work, Herculean Effort! I’ll be eagerly awaiting your next game!