Game Projects Feed

The Persistence - Out Now!

PersistenceThis week, Firesprite’s Playstation VR game The Persistence was released – and to great reviews! It was International Hobo’s pleasure to work on the narrative design, script, and voice recording sessions of the game. This was a significant challenge since the roguelike, procedural elements disrupted conventional storytelling and required careful construction to ensure the story did not get in the way of the game. We also worked closely with Firesprite to tweak the world building in subtle ways that will be invisible to players but which significantly improved the final experience. Firesprite gave us a lot more rope than we expected, and allowed us to create a truly unique story mounted as a two-hander theatrical play set against numbingly recurrent death. If you’re a PSVR player, check it out!


The Voices of the Heretic Kingdoms

Tom Baker

Tom Baker (pictured left), Sally Knyvette, Stephen Greif, Nicolette McKenzie, Robert Ashby – on my latest game project I’ve been working with some truly outstanding actors and actresses. But who are they, and what might TV shows, films, and games might you know them from? Take a tour of the voices of the Heretic Kingdoms!

In my career as a game writer and narrative designer, I’ve been privileged to work with some outstanding voice talent, including Rob Brydon, Kate Robins, Robert Llewelyn, and Nigel Planer – and that was just on Discworld Noir! But I’ve never worked with a voice cast as large as the one on Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, and it’s been an incredible pleasure to work with so many talented actors and actresses on this project. This piece is my tribute to the voice cast for the new Heretic Kingdoms game, which also offers a few remarks about the characters they are playing.

The Penta Nera

This scurrilous secret council behind the Inquisition is currently the most powerful – and dangerous force in the Heretic Kingdoms, and the player is caught up in a vicious battle between them, the outcome of which could have terrible consequences for everyone.

Krenze – Tom Baker

This is the second time I’ve worked with Tom Baker, the first being the original Kult: Heretic Kingdoms, which was first published 8 years ago this month. In the first game he was the narrator – and gave a real sense of presence to the history and backstory that set the context for the unfolding drama. I knew I wanted to get Tom back the moment it was decided to make the new game a full cast recording, and there was one role that really stood out for him – Krenze.

In the first game, Krenze is High Sage of the Penta Nera, a bookish individual who is obsessed with knowledge, and quite unconcerned about what happens as long as he can continue his studies. In the prologue of Shadows, Krenze has become a fugitive from his former allies, seeking somewhere to hide, and throughout the game he provides travelogues that set the scene as the player enters new regions. Krenze isn’t exactly a villain, although he’s certainly no hero! I like to see him as an anti-villain.

Tom brought a real sense of smug satisfaction to Krenze’s character, with moments of menace that just peek through from under his seemingly benign exterior. He is something akin to the player’s mentor – but you never really trust him. Although this is a massive departure from the role Tom is most famous for – the fourth Doctor in long-running British sci-fi show, Doctor Who, Tom does have a history of playing baddies, and in fact was the vilainous Koura in the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion classic, Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, the very same year he started playing the Doctor.

The recording sessions earlier this year were full of the wit and sagacity I’ve come to expect from Tom – he always comes into the studio with a thorough knowledge of every obscure word I’ve used in the script. Indeed, I can always count upon him to know a correct pronunciation when I am unsure! Plus, his occasional outbreaks of swearing here and there make for wonderful outtakes that, sadly, are not really suitable to be shared with the rest of the world.

Carissa Cantrecht – Sally Knyvette

In the original Heretic Kingdoms game, Carissa was a key character, befriending the player’s character, Alita, and travelling with her towards the fateful events of its conclusion. The game had multiple endings – including ones where Carissa died – which made it difficult to know how to fit Carissa into the new story. But stalwart fans of the Heretic Kingdoms will be able to work out what happened, if they follow the clues in the new game…

I cast Sally Knyvette into the role of Carissa on the basis of her showreel, and only later realized that she played the space-pirate Jenna Stannis in the classic sci-fi show Blake’s 7 (beloved by Doctor Who fans, and made by Dalek-creator Terry Nation). Sally fell into the role of Carissa effortlessly, and was very demanding of her performance in the studio. I love to work with an actress who, upon delivering a line they’re not happy with, is keen to retake it. That shows a commitment to the work that is always admirable.

As well as her iconic role on Blake’s 7, Sally also provides the voice of Carmilla in the Castlevania game Lords of Shadow and its sequel, as well as playing Graia in Space Marine.

Lord Valkarin – Robert Ashby

In the first game, Valkarin is the player’s mentor – although the relationship is headed for terrible conflict as the story develops. In the new game, Valkarin’s story arc is the strongest embodiment of the theme of the new story: are we free to be who we wish, or are we prisoners of our circumstances? I knew that I needed to cast someone who could bring gravitas to Valkarin, and someone who was also capable of taking a fantasy melodrama role seriously. Then I discovered Robert Ashby.

Although an alumnus of Doctor Who, having played the villainous Board in Timelash, what drew me to Robert for this game was his work as a Shakespearean actor – and I was not disappointed! In his pivotal scenes in Book 2, Lord Valkarin is delivered with such magnificent gusto that I truly believe we may have one of the most memorable encounters in computer RPG history. Judge for yourself when Book 2 launches next year.

Robert is no stranger to videogames either, having voiced characters in Populous: The Beginning, Ceville, and two of the Risen games. I was intrigued to learn, talking with him about Tom Baker (the two are good professional friends) that during the 1970s, Robert’s then-girlfriend, Louise Jameson, was playing Leela with Tom Baker on screen – much to Robert’s chagrin!

Baron Evanger – John Lightbody

It was very difficult to cast Baron Evanger, another key character from the first game. He needed to feel and sound very different to Lord Valkarin and the other members of the Penta Nera, and I wasn’t sure how to make that happen. John Lightbody won me over with his showreel, and gives a commanding performance as the Penta Nera’s slave of duty. (And yes, fans of the drinking sequence in Kult will be pleased to hear that The Thirst for Revenge does appear in Book 2!). This is John’s first videogame performance – but I hope it will not be his last.

Lady Mara – Joanna Wake

How do you cast a character whose strength of will is so great she literally returns from the dead? The relationship between Lord Valkarin and his mother, Lady Mara, is a key part of the story of Book 2, and I needed an actress who could stand her own against Robert’s amazing performance. Joanna took to the challenge with relish – I can’t imagine anyone else in this role now!

Joanna is no stranger to videogames having voiced Elizabeth in Dark Souls and Stowen in Dark Souls II. But I think in Lady Mara, she may have given life to one of the greatest female videogame villains of all time. Judge for yourself as she makes her debut in Book 2 next year!

The Devourer and its Souls

Casting the Devourer, the soul-eating demon at the centre of the player’s party in Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, was a challenge, but Nick Ellsworth went the extra mile, recording incredibly alternative takes for various lines even before we cast him! He gives a sinister delivery to this creepy character, and there are some great exchanges between the demon and the souls it purportedly controls – played by Jamie Mitchie, Harriet Kershaw, Callum O’Neill, and Angus King in Book 1, with Ronan Vibert and Emma Powell joining in Book 2. Every one of these was a joy to work with, but Emma’s recording sessions were rapturous because she just fell in love with her absolutely wild character – and I know the players are going to adore her too when Book 2 launches next year!

Friends and Enemies

Even though I don’t want to leave anyone out, I’m going to have to pick just a few highlights from the remaining cast. Stephen Greif – another Blake’s 7 alumni, having played the wonderfully sinister Travis in the 1978 season – was another pal of Robert Ashby, Tom Baker, and Sally Knyvette, and knocked his Book 1 role of Krek Bluntclaw out of the park. I have a regret here, as I really wish I’d given him a bigger role! So good, I hope we get to work together again.

Ramon Tikaram, who plays the jovial but less-than-trustworthy head of the Guild of Silk, Arashad, was another actor who just left me jaw-droppingly amazed. So much so that we wrote some extra parts for him in Book 2, just so I could get him back into the studio. A complete revelation behind the microphone, he’s been in a number of videogames including playing Gabe Weller in the Dead Space games, Pedro in Risen 2, not to mention Dorian in the forthcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition, which comes out later this month.

Then there’s Gary Martin, who provides several of the deepest voices of the game, including one that has a key role at the end of Book 1. I shall bite my tongue about this though, as I don’t want to spoil the surprise. Gary is a real videogame voice actor veteran, having voiced characters in Gunlok, Endgame, Stuntman, Micro Machines, Fire Warrior, Killzone, Star Wars: Empire at War and The Old Republic, not to mention playing Judge Magister Bergan in Final Fantasy XII. But honestly, nothing can top his awesome role in Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms – as players who complete Book 1 are about to discover!

Finally, I have to heap praise upon Nicolette McKenzie who plays the cold-hearted noblewoman Cyrene Akhdar in Book 2. This is a character I developed with Wendy Despain several years ago, and that I was thrilled to bring to life in this game. Nicolette, unusually, asked to see a picture of the character, and having done so instantly fell into the role like she was born to play it. Nicolette is no stranger to videogames, with voice credits including Ezekiel in El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, Lady Clarissa Westmacott in The Raven, not to mention the narrator of Dark Souls II. I hope the players love Cyrene as much as I do when she makes her debut in Book 2!

Sadly, I don’t have time to tell you all about the great performances given by Rupert Farley, Maria Darling (whose character you’ll love to hate!), Tamara Payne, Nick Sayce, Stephen Marcus, and last, but by no means least, the incredible Marc Silk – who recorded more different characters for this game than anyone else. What an incredible range! But you can check them all out when you play Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms for yourself.

The first part of the story, Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, Book One, is launching on Steam later this month, with Book Two following next year (and free to those who buy Book One). Check it out!


Sunset - a new Tale of Tales

Sunset I was just bemoaning my total lack of interest (as a player) in the big releases this month, when suddenly my secret wish was granted… I’m delighted to share the announcement of a new Tale of Tales project, Sunset:

Sunset is a first­-person exploration of a single penthouse apartment in a fictional tropical republic suffering under an oppressive regime. Set in the early 1970’s, the player, a housekeeper, visits week­ by­ week and slowly discovers the role of the apartment’s eccentric occupant in the civil war — and her own role in his life — as the city erupts around them.

Check out the Sunset website!


Kult Post-mortem (2): An RPG Between East and West

Kult logo In the last post I shared the story of how Kult’s Heretic Kingdoms setting came about. This time, we look at how a shortage of time and budget led to a unique hybrid of Western and Japanese RPG game mechanics.

From Mechs to Mages

Ever since founding International Hobo I’d been arguing that superior design was a way of compensating for the disadvantages a lower-budget project faces. At the upper end of the market, games are constrained by the demands of publishers and the requirements of audiences, such that very little innovation happens at the top end of videogames except when new hardware creates an expectation of newness. Working on a rather meagre budget, Kult: Heretic Kingdoms needed to make the best use of its resources, and that meant getting a design that could support a lot of play without being too hard to implement. We threw around a lot of different ideas for how the mechanics could be constructed, but many of them were held back by the budget. We couldn’t, for instance, have an open world because there wasn’t the money to implement it. That constrained us to a linear sequence of levels, which immediately put us into a similar space to Japanese RPGs. Was there something else we could borrow from that lineage?

All of us working on the design team had recently played a rather marvellous turn-based RPG from Japan called Front Mission 3, a tactical mech game with much more of an emphasis on role-playing than other titles in that franchise. One interesting aspect of the game was that skills are unlocked by equipping different mech parts and then waiting for the skill to randomly activate – at which point they are learned and can be programmed into the mech’s battle computer. This was a highly absorbing part of the character advancement in that game, and we wondered if we could apply that mechanism to a fantasy RPG. This lead to the idea of attunements, abilities that would unlock from the player using different equipment items – with the additional benefit of giving the player reasons to care about all the equipment in the game (since each item has its own attunement) and so anyone trying to 100% the game would need to find and use all the items. However, the random chance element worked better in a turn-based game than in a real-time game, so we switched to an experience bar that would fill up. This mechanic worked even better than expected, and became one of the best aspects of the final design.

Blood and Fire

I had long felt that computer RPGs had become dragged down in the pointless logistics of stockpiling potions, and that many games – Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, for instance – had weakened their combat gameplay to little more than a vacuous potion supermarket. I wanted a new approach to healing, something we hadn’t seen before – something reviewers might see and think ‘hey, that’s a little different from the usual!’ This is where the idea for Blood Points came from. The design concept was simple enough: whenever the player heals, they lose Blood Points that are only restored when they spend the night somewhere (like an inn). The Blood Points set the maximum Hit Point level, so every time the player loses Blood Points, they have fewer maximum Hit Points.

The net result is a slow process of attrition in the field as the player character gets more and more ragged the longer they go without a restful night. For gameplay pacing, it became necessary to ensure that there would be places to restore Blood Points to full at strategic points throughout the world, and so these became campfires. Whenever the player stopped at a campfire they would get their Blood Points restored and would be able to change their active attunements. Fires were thus positioned at the start of, and at certain distances within, all the dungeons. This also worked well with the story, since a number of campfires were used to trigger conversations with the NPCs.

The overall goals of this system were achieved – the player had to pace their survival in the field against their rate of loss of Hit Points (and hence of Blood Points) and decide if they would be able to survive to the next campfire or whether they would have to turn back to the previous one. The actual healing system was divisive, though. The player acquires healing items throughout the game that get steadily better i.e. they lose fewer Blood Points when they use them. But nothing stops the player using the healing items whenever they like, since the loss of Blood Points is proportional to the number of lost hit points. In practice, some players (including one on the design team) simply spammed the healing button constantly – which was not a satisfying play experience. Those players who got into the spirit of the healing system (including myself) were much happier with the way it worked. In fact, I think this is my favourite computer RPG healing mechanic so far. But it was also a little difficult to teach to the player, which was far from an ideal situation.

Damage and Dreams

The basic damage equation in Kult is very similar to the standard Japanese RPG damage equation, where damage suffered is proportional to the difference between base damage caused and the defensive value (based upon the armour worn in Kult). However, there was a twist: a quarter of the damage prevented by armour still leaks through. This gave the combat quite a different feel from the typical Japanese RPG where if you are outclassed you just constantly score hits for 1 damage against the foes. Instead, a proportion of damage caused was always leaking through. The result of this system was that enemies were a little easier to kill than in some other games, but the player was also much more likely to die (you certainly had to be ready to hit your ‘Heal’ key at a moment’s notice!). I like the way this worked, it had a lot of character, but it was very difficult to keep the player corralled by strong monsters – since with a ranged or a magic character you could always peck away a foes HP quite easily.

Another part of the design that had mixed results was the Dreamworld. An ethereal other dimension exists alongside the physical world, and the player (as a mage) is able to enter it. This was part of the concept from the very beginning, and we didn’t change it significantly. Echoes of the past persist in the Dreamworld, and dimensional rifts could be seen there, as well as a few ghosts of the dead (who could be spoken with). The time the player can remain there is limited, but for the most part this didn’t present much of a restriction to the player’s activities.

What I loved about the Dreamworld were the combat tactics it fostered. Most humanoids and animals did not appear in the Dreamworld, so you could switch into it, outflank them, then appear behind them and kick their ass. Spirit creatures only appeared in the Dreamworld, though, so sometimes the player would escape into the Dreamworld only to be torn apart by Soulravens (my absolute favourite of the creature designs in this game – and their fast movement made them very dangerous). Mages, Demons, and Elementals appeared in both the real world and the Dreamworld making it impossible to avoid them. But often, the player would be facing a mix of foes. For instance, the ogre-like Sura warriors could not enter the Dreamworld but their demon allies and magic-wielding Shaman could – so the player could opt to enter the Dreamworld to pick off the demons and shaman, then return to finish off the now-unsupported warriors.

In review, the overall design of the game was very well received, although several reviewers felt that we hadn’t done enough with the Dreamworld. This was a fair complaint, although it reflects the lack of time that the project had as a whole. The entire script for the game was written in one month – that’s how tight the development schedule was. No-one seemed to notice that the design was a blend of elements from Western and Japanese RPG design, but I suspect this just reflects the different expectations players have of EuroRPGs – such games generally aren’t as trammelled into familiar patterns as the now-familiar Western open world RPG (that Origin helped establish and Bethesda have made their own) or the extremely traditional Japanese RPG formulas. It was nice, however, to expressly design a game that could draw from both influences.

Next, the Final Part: From Tom Baker to Release


Kult Post-mortem (1): Dead Gods and No Dwarves

Alita In 2005, an unknown Slovak company released a EuroRPG that managed to pull in 80% and 90% review scores. The game was Kult: Heretic Kingdoms (known as Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition in the US) and this is the story of how it came to be made.

You can read Part (1): Dead Gods and No Dwarves over on Only a Game today, and Part (2) will appear here tomorrow.


What's Stopping a Ghost Master Kickstarter?

Ghost Master WallpaperFans of Ghost Master sometimes ask me about whether I'd consider a Kickstarter for a sequel. But getting the money would only be half the battle...

I'm a long time sceptic of Kickstarter for videogames, a grumpy cynic who fears many gamers will soon be cursing the vagaries of the development process when the project they backed transpires to be vapourware. But it is not that I am against crowdfunding - on the contrary, it has already achieved wonders for both comics and boardgames. It is just that videogame development is far from a clean cut proposition, and it is the vast minority of projects that run smoothly and on time. Kickstarter gives the illusion of offering you an incredibly extended pre-order capability, while it actually makes you into an investment broker motivated by products rather than profits. This is a difficult point for some gamers to wrap their heads around.

Investment in projects centred upon risk: what might make the project a commercial failure, and what problems might emerge that would require additional funds to keep the project ticking. A Kickstarter game doesn't (in principle, at least) have to worry about the first concern but it sure as hell has to worry about the second! Whereas every aspect of a boardgame can be accurately paper prototyped and play tested, videogames emerge only gradually and can only be properly balanced and tweaked very late in the process. It is not a surprise that many more game projects are started than are finished, nor that no investor has ever put money into a game, only ever into a company. That is, until Kickstarter...

Because of the horrific risks associated with game development, I would be very reluctant to pursue a Ghost Master Kickstarter unless I had first found a developer I felt had an excellent chance of delivering. I certainly would not want to raise the money and then look for a team - having the team would be the only way of knowing how much I needed to raise! Even without all the relevant information, though, my suspicion would be for a disconnect between the budget needed and the amount that could be crowdfunded. Still, this latter concern wouldn't be a deal breaker since I'd happily go fishing if I had a developer lined up who could do the job. Alas, I don't.

What would that developer need to be like? That question goes hand-in-hand with the problem of what kind of sequel the game would be. For a start, it now seems that the rights to the original are irretrievably lost because they were sold as a job-lot with all of the other Empire Interactive properties when the publisher went under. The current owners seem to view the Empire catalogue as a modest little earner, but they're not interested in messing about with individual IP as far as I've been able to ascertain. So it would have to be a spiritual successor at most - Master of Ghosts, not Ghost Master 2. I suspect everyone could live with that, though. However, I wouldn't be comfortable making a game that was of a lower standard of presentation than the original, and that sets severe constraints on the properties of the mystery developer...

The first and most important requirement is a team that already has AI code sufficiently similar to the original's functionality. The behaviour of the mortals is both the core of the game and the principal source of entertainment - the hapless humans must act with an illusion of plausibly, and react to each other accordingly. It literally took years to get this right with Ghost Master, and the only way to mitigate this risk is to start with a code base that's already halfway there - especially with pathfinding, which is always a nightmare.

The second requirement is for multiple artists. The animations for both the haunter powers and the mortal's responses is key to what makes Ghost Master such fun to play, and this would be impossible with a very small outfit. A lone programmer-artist is certainly out, and a mid-sized developer is likely to be required. Fortunately, a company of the necessary size is likely to have a  constant need for projects (or rather, for the cashflow that projects bring) which might make deal-brokering easier - especially since the new IP could be shared with them.

Lastly, any developer that could take on a Ghost Master semi-sequel would need either the buccaneer spirit to borrow from the original content without the IP rights, or access to sound legal advice. Much can be inherited without legal issue, but in the battlefield that is the courts the fear is often of the law suit being raised, not of the cause of action being valid. This makes cowards of everyone who draws salary from media franchises. Of course, everything could be entirely brand new, but that'd be a disappointing kind of sequel. I'd like for some of the haunters to return, and that might require a company with more than the average degree of moxie.

Well that's all the balloon-deflating, bubble-bursting, nit-picking. Anyone who has read this far is presumably a fan of the game, and even if a sequel never actually happened what I suspect they'd most like to know is what would it be like? I have a fair idea for this just from the discussions of Ghost Master 2 prior to the demise of Sick Puppies. Let's call this imaginary game Ghost Lord and fill in some blanks.

The key feature Ghost Master 2 would have had was the one speculated by Rhianna Pratchett in her review of the first one: a level editor. Although I adore the intricacies of the original game's custom-built levels, they came with twin costs: considerable implementation costs, and no possibility of community content. Ghost Lord would fix that by planning a tile-and-texture system from the start making it easy for both the team and the community to make their own levels. Planned from the outset with this feature, Ghost Lord might not have levels that are quite as nice as the original, but it could have more content - and could offer fans the opportunity to keep generating more.

This would require some changes to the haunters recruitment. I was not a fan of the puzzles of the first game, although I appreciate some fans might be. (The fact that some of the puzzle designs burned through my sanity while I was devising them may be a factor!). I would therefore prefer to focus on the game systems and downplay the custom puzzles, and this would be the best balance between ease of implementation and re-usability of assets, too. Custom puzzles would certainly be removed from the requirements for completing specific hauntings, but this would not preclude a swathe of achievement-like mission challenges for various bonuses, and these could include a variety of brain-bending problems that should hopefully keep puzzle-heads happy.

Although I would expect the mechanics to take two steps away from puzzle solving and one step towards RPG advancement systems, I don't think the puzzles would go completely. Part of the flavour of the first game is laying ghosts to rest in order to recruit them, and I'd want to keep this in some manner. Likely, most locations would have just one restless spirit, and some might have none. A ghost editor is a possibility, though, and this would mean even the community levels could have restless spirits. This would give more emphasis to the Mission: Impossible style haunter team selection - for me, this was always one of the most enjoyable aspects of the strategic play, anyway, as hauntings could go very differently with different spirits at hand.

The interface could be cleaned up quite a bit, but the fundamentals are sound in the original. I would quite like a design that would work on tablets (although I don't currently own one) as this would support mouse as well. Drag and drop haunter placement with fewer submenus is probably the way to go. I'm unsure about Orders - did anyone but me actually use them? Other than what I've mentioned, most aspects of the design would remain the same - powers, plasm, and foes are all aspects of the original I'm happy with, and although Insanity is a significant bit of extra work I would be reluctant to lose it. If anything, I'd like to heighten its effects so that it was competitive with Terror powers in terms of completion times.

There may never be a Ghost Master 2 or a Master of Ghosts or a Ghost Lord, but Kickstarter has changed how I think about the possibility of a sequel. I used to say that another Ghost Master was 'impossible'. Then, after trying to reaquire the IP, I updated that to 'unlikely'. With Kickstarter, it's now 'uncertain'. But one thing is clear: the game has a small but loyal fanbase who have kept this haunting sim from falling into a shallow grave, never to rattle its chains again. To them, and everyone else who has enjoyed Ghost Master over the years, I offer my gratitude. A game is nothing without its players.

The original Ghost Master PC game is available on Steam for $4.99, €4.99, or £2.99. Sadly, none of the talented people who worked on this game receive any money from its sale. You can read the two part postmortem of the game (Part One/Part Two) on my other blog, and the fan community is at Ghostmaster.net. Happy hauntings!