Podcast

Happy new year!

If you haven’t heard it already, I strongly urge you to listen to episode 31 of the Spam Spam Spam Humbug podcast (http://podcast.ultimacodex.com/e/spam-spam-spam-humbug-31-the-dark-unknown/) which features Adam Burr talking about his Ultima-like tile-based cRPG: The Dark Unknown. Adam has made a heap of progress this year including a successful Kickstarter to provide new assets and art for the project. He’s also in with a good chance of picking up the 2015 Ultima Fan Project of the Year prize (http://ultimacodex.com/2016/01/vote-for-your-favourite-fan-project-of-2015/). I was particularly pleased to hear some positive feedback that also applies to some of the design choices I’ve made for U3.5. I also thought the questions were a pretty good generic set for anyone developing a game like this, so on that basis, if I’d been asked them about U3.5, here’s the short version of how I would have answered them.

What was the moment when you decided you wanted to make your game and what was the catalyst for that decision?

I had created my own 8-bit computer derived from the popular British microcomputer, the ZX Spectrum. I had even persuaded someone to add support for it to a popular cross-platform ZX Spectrum emulator. I wanted a game that would show off what it was capable of doing and I thought Ultima IV was a good fit. Somewhere down the line the plan changed to support the more commonly available but less powerful ZX Spectrum +2B and to do an original game rather than a port.

Was there an initial design document, and has the project exceeded your expectations of its initial scope?

There wasn’t what would commonly be thought of as a design document, just a lot of notes, although over time they have evolved to more closely match a traditional design doc. In terms of the scope, it’s entirely dictated by the hardware platform, the main limitations being RAM, the memory paging system, and the lack of a disk system. The advantage is there’s not much room for scope creep.

Were there specific design elements you wished to celebrate with respect to previous Ultima and Ultima-like games, and if so, why?

The top down view, because it lends itself to attribute-based graphics. The conversation system, because I also like text adventures. The fully realized dungeons from U5, because I also like dungeon crawlers. The music from the Apple ][ versions, because the Spectrum has an AY chip (as does the Mockingboard). The non-linearity and lack of a big boss from U4. The references to other episodes from Serpent Isle.

What are your favourite Ultimas?

Exodus, Quest of the Avatar and Serpent Isle.

Are there other early CRPG’s beside Ultima that have influenced your design and if so, how?

The early Ultimas are populated with real world and historical NPCs and I wanted to reflect that, while at the same time not make it quite so jarring to the player. Because U3 gave you the option to import parties from Bard’s Tale and Wizardry I got the idea that perhaps these games all inhabited a common universe.  But you’ll also meet characters from Bloodwych and Gauntlet, just because I happen to like those games. Bloodwych also contributed staircases to the dungeons which are used in place of ladders for practical reasons to do with the way U3.5 is coded.

What are your least favorite features from the early Ultimas and ones you are attempting to either improve on or completely avoid in your game?

Space travel, end of game bosses, per-party member food levels, reagents, shepherds, and schedules.

If you had limitless time and money, what features would you like to see added to your game?

Ports to other 8-bit platforms, including a Japanese version on the MSX.

What features that are not currently in the game are you planning to add?

I have a plan for what I think can be achieved on the hardware. It has some elements like a dating sub-game that I’m willing to cut out if the rest of the content overruns. Avoiding feature creep is essential to finish large scale projects.

What do you think it is about this particular class of RPG’s that makes them so memorable to people and what would you say to other gamers that may not give them a chance simply because the graphics look outdated or are not 3D?

The problem with photorealistic worlds is that they rob you of your imagination, which is infinitely better than anything even the best artist can come up with. It’s the reason text adventures are still popular. However, unless you were raised on these kinds of games when there weren’t any alternatives, it’s a hard sell.

Many would-be game developers have misconceptions about the actual time and resources it actually takes to finish even a 2D tile based RPG’s such as yours. It’s not hard to find countless other CRPG’s in this class that have been started by other passionate individuals, but that never get completed. Could you share some of the misconceptions you originally had about the development of your game and offer some practical advice to other game developers that may be thinking about embarking on a similar journey?

I think I actually avoided most of the misconceptions. Before I got going I’d read a blog on developing this kind of game for the TI99/4 and so I knew it was going to be a long slog. Here are some tips I’d offer:

  • Read Jason Gregory’s Game Engine Architecture.
  • Know your target platform(s) and design accordingly.
  • Don’t write your own engine unless there’s a really compelling reason to do so.
  • If you’re a lone coder, use Unity. If you have a team, use Unreal.
  • Use scripting for the game logic.
  • Write the plot first.
  • Use placeholders for as many assets as possible.
  • It’s ok to work on final versions of assets when coding is getting you down.
  • Involve the community.

What were some of the challenges you faced?

Predominantly the challenges were the constraints of the chosen platform. The other big challenge is just to keep going with it when it feels like it will never be finished.

What proved to be harder than expected (and/or easier than expected)?

I suspect the hardest bits are still ahead of me. Although it took quite a while to get it fully tested, the dungeon display system, which uses tiles and groups, was actually fairly easy to write.

After you complete Pax Britannia, what can we expect next from Zedex Dragon and Source Solutions?

I’ll be trying to encourage other people to use the ZXodus][Engine to create their own cRPGs. And I’m interested in doing something with virtual reality.

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