Inside Pulse 12

Interview with Digital Media Workshop, Inc. About Prominence

So, a little back story here. Back in January I did a piece called, “Ten Indie games to Look Forward to in 2011.” Well, the day after the piece ran, someone named Mike Morrison from a company called Digital Media Workshop, Inc. emailed me asking why their game wasn’t on it. Mike showed me the website for the game, a video trailer and told me a little bit about the concept behind Prominence and I was intrigued. This Sci-Fi point and click game seemed to push all the right button in the PC gamer part of my brain and I wanted to know more. I also enjoy giving screen time to independent adventure game developers, so after a bit of banter, I came up with a set of questions about Prominence for DMW and below is the end result.

Mike Morrison is co-designer, art and audio lead, and the owner of Digital Media Workshop, Inc.

Kevin McGrath is co-designer and programming lead.

DHGF: Looking at the website for Digital Media Workshop, you guys have a ten year history of doing things other than video game development. You’ve done graphics for trade show booths, engagement videos, and even letterhead design. Switching over to video games is a big paradigm shift. What was the decision behind that?

Mike: Yeah, we’ve got this eclectic background in various kinds of production – music, 3D, design, video, web – it’s a mixed bag of multimedia. At first glance, it probably seems like we don’t know what we want to be when we grow up, or at least that game development comes out of left field. But, if you break down a graphical adventure game into its component parts, you end up with those very same things.

Originally, we wanted to bring all these separate disciplines together into some kind of demo project for prospective clients. I was trying to find a cool way to do it when I stumbled onto some of the work being done by other indie developers in the adventure genre. After that there was no turning back!

DHGF: Prominence is a point and click adventure game which, in the past decade, has become a genre that’s really only done by European developers these days (aside from Telltale). What was the decision behind choosing that genre for telling the story of Prominence and like most adventure game developers, are you expecting Prominence to be a far larger hit across that Atlantic than here in the States?

Mike: The story for Prominence actually came after the decision to make an adventure game. We wanted follow many of the traditional rules of the adventure genre (point-and- click style movement and interaction, inventory, and puzzles), but we also wanted to find creative ways around some of the constraints of the genre.

So, while the story was in development we tackled all sorts of issues like the limitations of what the player knows versus what the protagonist knows, immersion-breaking navigational limitations (“Why can’t I go over to the waterfall that I see over there?”), and ways to prevent the player from getting lost or disoriented when moving around.

It always seemed rather silly to us that characters in some games seem to walk around with tape recorders or similar devices and they just leave these cassettes or media cards everywhere detailing their innermost thoughts and experiences. So we came up with other – hopefully more believable – ideas for how the player could acquire audio clues.

Then we added some new ideas like the acquisition of some new skills/abilities as the game progresses – inspired by the leveling up in RPGs. We thought that would be fun and, of course, it opens up new possibilities for puzzles, too.

Hmm. I better stop talking about this before I give away any of the super secret stuff!

We do expect that the game will sell better overseas, but it also seems like there’s been a bit of an uptick in the adventure game genre here in the U.S. lately. Whether it’s the result of hidden-object gamers looking for a bit more in their game experience, the older gamers who desire a bit more story and a bit less reflex, or gamers from the “Ëœ90s waxing nostalgic – it seems to me that adventure games are making a bit of a comeback.

Kevin: In our initial game design meetings, we explored quite a few different themes, between mystery and science-fiction and a bunch of other concepts as well. We kept going back to the idea for Prominence, in part because it could only really be told in a sci-fi setting, and because sci-fi adventure games have been scarce in the past decade.

Mike and I both love science-fiction and there are quite a few possibilities that you can do in that setting that you cannot in others. As the game development went on, the game grew and so, in the end, with the way the story, genre, and setting meshed together, it really feels like all the decisions we made aligned perfectly.

DHGF: Prominence has been in production for several years now. It’s been a what, four-five year journey for you guys? What have you learned along the way that will help you in your next game, or other indie developers looking to make their first game?

Mike: I think the realization that our project was going to be an adventure game was in late 2005, and the design began in 2006. We’ve been on quite an adventure of our own, and we’re in the home stretch now. It’s very exciting!

We learned so much in the process of making Prominence, it could probably fill a book. I’ve been compiling a list of things to keep, improve, or change drastically if we get the opportunity to make more games.

One thing I think we might have gotten right was iteration. We had builds rolling out to a small group of testers since the very beginning, which allowed us to test lots of puzzle concepts and ideas. Many bad or confusing puzzles were weeded out quickly. That’s a process we’ll definitely keep and enhance if we make another game.

We also got pretty lucky with the cross-section of machines that we were able to use. We had access to some really low-end systems with integrated graphics – the kind that could probably have been declared legally dead – and we tested on them. We wanted to get the system requirements down as low as they could go and still offer an immersive experience. When parts of the game ran poorly on those systems, we took it as encouragement to think more creatively with the engine development.

Kevin: When we moved to expand the capabilities of the engine, we knew there was going to be a serious issue with performance. For one thing, in comparison to Scratches, which was our benchmark for performance, we were using larger texture sizes, and we were adding in both textured and video hotspots. With the larger textures at the nodes, performance on some of the lower-end machines took a serious hit. A number of improvements were made, including cutting up the larger textures into smaller ones and then only loading those textures that were visible to the player. The improvement in performance on the lower-end machines was huge, and it was changes like this that really helped push our minimum spec downwards. We’re still working on optimizing the code, but so far, it’s looking very promising.

DHGF: From watching the video and looking at the screenshots of the game, the game is played in a first person perspective with a Myst like feel to it. What was the decision behind choosing a first person perspective over a third person. Was there a particular game in the genre that inspired you?

Mike: The decision to go first-person was mostly for the sake of immersion. Parts of the story and gameplay were designed to work in first-person as well.

We were initially inspired by the immersion and detail of Scratches, since it was essentially done by a team of three (one programmer, one artist, one musician). I also was impressed by the technology powering Myst 4. From a story standpoint, we were inspired by all sorts of games, films, and books.

Kevin: One of our design goals was to immerse the player into the experience, such that they play the game as though they were the protagonist. The story of Prominence works best from first-person… it would be hard to imagine it working in third-person.

As far as influences go, I would have to list Scratches as a big one, simply because it was an eye-opener in terms of seeing how a first-person perspective game could be done, and not require a team of 400 people to do it.

In terms of science-fiction adventure games, there haven’t really been that many in recent years, so much of our inspiration came from science-fiction media that we’ve both seen and experienced – movies, novels, and non-adventure science-fiction games.

DHGF:The story of Prominence is the story of an entire alien race of refugees who might have finally found a planet to call their own, only to something bad has happened. Where does the protagonist of Prominence fit into the big picture of the story and what is their role in the game?

Mike: The protagonist is a member of the Letarri vanguard crew that was sent to New Letarr to prepare it – essentially to build the first Letarri base on the surface – for the incoming colonists.

The vanguard vessel travels to the planet and then becomes an orbital factory, fabricating structures and components that are shuttled down to the surface and assembled by the vanguard 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 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.

DHGF: Adventure games tend to live or die according to the puzzles the game contains within. Every adventure game includes the usual, “combine object A and object B to make Object C,” or “Use Object on Scenery to advance.” It’s part of the genre. Besides those type of puzzles, are there any really unique ones in Prominence that will help the game to stand out?

Mike: That’s so true. Get adventure gamers talking, and you’re almost guaranteed to get stories about the worst puzzles they’ve had to endure. Whether it’s sliding blocks, a certain infamous moustache puzzle, or cell phones and cats, everyone’s got a puzzle they love to hate. (Mine is a certain cookie recipe puzzle in an otherwise outstanding adventure about a couple of generation-linked detectives chasing serial killers.) Prominence contains a variety of puzzles, including both of the inventory-style puzzles that you mentioned.

Since it’s a sci-fi game, we know players want to have some fun with futuristic technology. So, there’s also a variety of GUI puzzles where the player can interact with computer systems, cameras, a communications system, a holographic storage system, power systems, and much more! There’s even a diagnostic laptop-like tool that the player can connect to some systems to hack in via their computer keyboard.

Despite the variety, none of the puzzles are timed. None of them are arcade-style puzzles that require (as Kevin likes to put it) “the reflexes of a cheetah”.

Kevin: One of the very first things that we decided early on with Prominence was that we wanted different kinds of puzzles in our game. Sure, the inventory combination puzzles and inventory-use-on-scenery puzzles are fun, but we also wanted other types of puzzles. In a high-tech facility such as the one Prominence is based in, it would be odd not to find some puzzles based upon computer systems. We have some of those. We have a few puzzles that combine the use-inventory-item-on-environment with some other work to be done. There’s machinery to be controlled, there’s locks to be bypassed, there are changes that the player can make to their environments which will help solve puzzles… in short, we wanted to include a wide variety of puzzles.

More importantly, though, every puzzle is tied in some way to the story or to what needs to be solved. We feel that the player should never feel like the puzzle is just an abstraction, a way of dropping X kind of puzzle into the game. During the development of the game, we threw out several puzzle designs at different stages just because they either were too abstract for the challenge to be overcome, or didn’t follow logically with what a player would normally expect to do.

DHGF: I know it’s very hard for an independent development team to land a publisher these days, especially an adventure game in North America. The Adventure Company has kind of dried up, Deep Silver doesn’t have as much of a focus on the genre here as they do in Europe, Lighthouse Interactive went bankrupt a few years ago and so on. What’s it been like trying to sell Prominence to a publisher for you guys?

Mike: Our original plan was to bring the game to 90% completion and then shop it around to find good partners who wanted to help us bring Prominence to adventure gamers everywhere. To our surprise, we were approached very early by some exciting prospective publishing partners.

Each time we take another step closer to completion we get more calls or emails from additional publishers and it’s always exciting. We work to keep them updated on development progress and our marketing efforts, and strive to be respectful of their time and interest. Ultimately, though, we’ve decided to stick to our original plan and bring the game to that 90% milestone before we sign any deals.

Kevin: One of the little benefits of getting publisher interest like this is that it’s yet another pat on the back pushing us forward. It’s been a long road, and it gets to be like a marathon sometimes. One foot in front of the other. It’s nice to get some water offered to you along the way, and in this industry, that’s fan mail, interest from adventure gaming sites, and publisher interest. All these things help when you’re in the trenches, working away at the project. So, seeing the interest from publishers is really uplifting.

DHGF: I know that Prominence is going with panoramic visuals which is always a pretty impressive undertaking. I also know it can be tricky to develop. I remember a few years ago I played Scratches and occasionally if you whipped your character around too quickly, the graphics would freeze up for a second or there’d be stalling and/or slowdown. Combine that with the occasional issues I hear about from programmers about Windows 7 and/or Vista, was making a panoramic game a lot harder than if it was a straight first person title with static backgrounds, and how much more rewarding is it for both you the developers and the eventual gamers to have the game done as a full panoramic affair?

Mike: Well, one issue with panoramic games versus games with static backgrounds is making it comfortable for the player. I’ve actually gotten queasy and had headaches from some panoramic point-and-click games. We looked into a lot of the potential causes because we didn’t want that to happen with Prominence. Wide-angle fields of view and forced focus planes can really mess with your eyes and your brain.

We keep the field of view at a comfortable level to minimize fishbowl effects and distortion when looking around, and it feels really natural. We also don’t push things in and out of focus or distort the cursor during gameplay. After playing through the game thousands of times during development and testing, I feel like we’ve really gotten it as comfortable as possible for the player.

Being able to pan around 360 degrees can also make it very easy for some players to get lost or disoriented when moving from one location to another. In Prominence, much of the player’s movement from one location to the next is animated, so you’ll have a very clear idea of where you’re going and how you got there. We can do this because all the environments are built fully in 3D. It really enhances the immersion when you click to move to a new location and physically move through the space. There have been a few games that have done this before – Morpheus and Obsidian come to mind, although there are probably others.

Whenever a new player or tester moves around in Prominence for the first time and says, “Oh man, that is so cool!” It’s all worth it. That’s the payoff. They’re ready to get into that world and explore and experience the game.

Kevin: A panoramic viewpoint has always been something we’ve wanted to do ever since Scratches came out. We’ve always felt that there’s more of a sense of the player ‘being there” with a panoramic viewpoint than with the static four-directional viewpoint. To that end, we spent a lot of time working towards optimizing the game engine so that performance wouldn’t be an issue. The end result has been pretty spectacular. Even on low-end machines, we still get good performance in nodes that have larger textures than Scratches.

There have been a few issues with Vista and Windows 7, as well as a few issues with the vast variety of screen resolutions and aspect ratios available. When we first started working on Prominence, the standard screen resolution was 1024×768 and the new LCD monitors that were coming out were 1280×1024. Now, with the advent of wide-screen monitors, the aspect ratios and resolutions are all over the place. So, that part has been a bit of a challenge that we’ve been overcoming while making the game.

DHGF: I know Prominence will be available for PC gamers in 2011, but what about the Mac? Apple’s iPhone and iPad are getting a lot of love from video game makers as of late, but their actual computers not so much. Any plans on making a Mac compatible version of Prominence?

Mike: Initially, Prominence will be released for the PC. We are not ruling out the possibility of future ports to Mac or Linux, although no formal plans for either are in place at this time.

Kevin: One of the things that we try to consider is whether a port to a particular platform will affect the gameplay. An extreme example of this is Assassin’s Creed on the iPhone, which went from being a first-person shooter style game to a side-scrolling game. Obviously, any ports of Prominence wouldn’t be that drastic of a change, but there is some concern that the gameplay might lose something with a move to, say, and iPhone or iPad.

DHGF: Finally, what’s on tap for DMW once Prominence is in the can and available for purchase? Is this going to be a one-off project for you guys, or will you continue to work in video gaming?

Mike: Sleep. Then a vacation. I haven’t had one in more than four years.

If Prominence does well, it would be tremendously exciting to have the studio move to full-time game development.

Kevin: I have to agree with Mike on the vacation part. And the sleep part too.

While Prominence development has been going on, our creative minds of course come up with all sorts of fun ideas for other games. I think it’s a natural sort of process where the brain diverts itself away from the familiar. Obviously, we didn’t want to divert our attention away from Prominence, so we wrote all those little ideas down, maybe for the next game.

Of course, if Prominence does well, then we’ll certainly consider making a sequel. Prominence is one of those games that concludes at its ending, so it won’t leave you hanging, but there is certainly enough story for a sequel.

To learn more about Prominence, check out either the game’s official website or the official Facebook page. We’ll have more on Prominence as time goes by, including a full in-depth review of the game upon its release.