Lead Designer at Zatobo. Currently working on Vinland: Arctic Assault. "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it."
Zatobo Games is not just about entertainment, we also hope to inspire people to discover more about history and all the fantastic stories that it holds. I know that my own interest in all things historic came through playing games; Sid Meier’s Colonisation was the first I can remember which really made me want to read up more about American colonial history, and as a result I was first in the class when it came to studying Hernando Cortez and the Spanish Conquistadores in South America. Likewise, Age of Empires II taught me more about the Ottoman Empire than school ever did.
I think that developers who try to lecture on history (or any other subject) get it wrong, instead they should include juicy tid-bits, designed to encourage their players to discover more about the subject. In Arctic Assault for instance, we present three different ships that the Player can sail, each with it’s their own characteristics and traits, but there is a tale behind each class, a way they each contributed the rise of the people we now call Vikings.
When one thinks about the Viking age, the most potent symbol will always be the graceful Dragon longship (the Drakkar) gliding serenely onto the beach, only to then disgorge a band of bloodthirsty raiders. These would then lay waste to the locals, and return home with their arms full of ill gotten loot. This isn’t the full picture of Viking life however, though this scene is right to glorify the Viking ships as the cornerstone of their dominance during the close of the Dark Ages. However, it was not just these mighty warships which gave them their maritime supremacy, but also some more humble vessels, of which the Knarr is arguably the most important.
If the Drakkar was the cutting edge of Viking might, then the Knarr was the lifeblood. These ships trawled the oceans and rivers of Europe and beyond. They were filled to the brim with cargoes of valuable trade goods or colonists eager to make a better life for themselves. It was the Knarr which traversed the Baltic and established some of the most lucrative trade routes which were the real foundation on which Viking society was based. Viking sailors spread out along the rivers of Russia, not for loot but to forge a new route to the greatest city in the world at the time, Byzantium.
A Knarr was primarily powered by a central square sail, the sailcloth being woven out of a special Scandinavian wool which was renowned for being naturally very oily and as such was water resistant. The sail was actually the most valuable part of the ship, being worth more than the rest of the vessel together. The hull was clinker built (that is built of overlapping planks of wood, riveted together by iron nails). Each plank was split from a large log (saws were not used by the Vikings), and as such, each went with the grain of the wood lending additional strength to the structure. The planks were a mere 2.5cm thick, and would flex with the waves, making the ship at sea ripple like the muscles of a well toned athlete, allowing it to knife cleanly through the water.
The ships are not the only great asset these enigmatic people had. Spend some time with the Vikings in Vinland: Arctic Assault, and see what else you can discover.
So back in March I began to discuss the background to MixedMedia writing, and how it is currently being used by others in the industry; but then how does this feed into the Vinland world, and my own plans with it?Well at the moment, there are two sides to my work here, the games and the books. I have big plans for both, as laid out below. Films will (hopefully!) come later, but nothing concrete is planned for that medium just yet.
Books; if you were among the first readers of my blog, then you will be well aware that it all began with an idea for a book. This in time became Vinland: Revelations, a text that I am still labouring diligently away at. It all began with an idea... what if the Vikings survived in America? What in history would have to change for this to happen? To explain this, I applied the Butterfly Effect, where one seemingly minor change in time can cause a dramatic transformation of history. Therefore we need a situation just like the butterfly flapping its wings, and causing a hurricane.
The event I settled on takes place in the early history of Vinlandic exploration and colonisation, and was at the time attributed to the intervention of the gods. But these gods are fickle creatures, and in this telling they chose not to intervene, and rather to let events play themselves out. The result? Well that is up to you to discover.Revelations was created to explain how the Vikings made it to the New World, it will then spawn a parallel series that will take place sometime later and covers how the Viking people in this alien world have developed and made it their home.
Games; now that the bones of the story have been set, we find that we need something to fill in the gaps or detail, and games happen to be very good at doing this. They allow the player to actually visit and take part in the setting, and to see with their own eyes the wonders seen by the characters, their decisions there can really matter. As you will be aware, our first release was Vinland: Arctic Assault, a simple game which traces the journey undertaken by Leif Erikson in Revelations (now released on Desura, please do support this project by following the link below!), however this is more about survival and discovery. Where the book concentrates more on the characters and their personal challenges, the game is more about the dangers faced at sea, and by actually putting the player in the role of the helmsman, makes this nuance all the clearer.
Arctic Assault is certainly not the end of the road for this, we have already begun work on a second game. Although this one is not directly related to the Vinland series, it will use Vinlandic factions, and allow us to build up a little more detail on the different factions in power, and their relationships with each other. The ultimate goal of this game is to provide the technical backdrop for a full on RPG, set in early Vinland, where the player will be able to visit the towns detailed in the books, and using those as a base, evoking and expanding on topics only touched upon briefly in other mediums, thereby allowing us to broaden the Vinland universe.
Image courtesy of: Travelblog.org
So, my very first though certainly not my last, game developer conference was at Rezzed, in Brighton and what an experience it was! Unfortunately we were a little too late in applying for our own booth for Vinland: Arctic Assault in the Leftfield Collection (an area sponsored by Sega purely for indie games), I still managed to hand out a sneaky flier here and there, and talked about the game to anyone who would listen.
In a way, I am pleased that we didn’t have a booth, partially because I would have had absolutely no clue about what was required for it (though the presentation of the Indie games was pretty simplistic... black marker pen on the walls), but also because it meant I was completely at liberty to peruse the other presentations and also able to attend some of the lectures which were on an interesting and varied mix of subjects.
The most interesting one for me, was the one presented by Peter Molyneux of Dungeon Keeper, Theme Park, Populous and Fable fame. He talked about the reason he got into game development, and why it continues to hold his fascination today (and it is quite clear that this man really, really LOVES his job). He spoke at length about his new company and project, more psychological experiment than game, and his reasoning for doing so. I was quite pleased to be able to draw some parallels between his business model, and our own at Zatobo, namely that the next couple of projects they are working on, are entirely geared towards developing the tools and gathering the experience to work on a final “best game ever”. It’s not something I have spoken about much, but I will do an article on it at some point but essentially our idea is to create a series of smaller, more casual games which will feed expertise and funds into a larger “big project”.
I also attended some other lectures, though these were of a lower key but interesting never the less. I am somewhat sorry that I didn’t make more effort on some of them, the DayZ, Natural Selection and Total War in particular I am kicking myself over having missed. Still, instead of these I was out on the show floor, trying games and more importantly chatting to the developers and community leaders themselves about their games, how they have progressed and what they wanted to do in the future.
The stand out part of the show however was Natural Selection 2, which I have since pre-ordered (yes, it was just that good). At first, I was a little put off by the poster, adorned as it was by a big ugly alien gorilla thing, however in getting closer I watched over the shoulder of some guys who were part way through a game. To cut a long story short, I eventually had a go myself and was immediately impressed by the quality, level of detail and intelligence of the core features; which would constitute a proper review on their own. During this time, I managed to meet and talk to one of the devs plus some of their community volunteer team who were extremely friendly and happy to talk about the game and its origins, plus what they hoped it would evolve into. No matter that I would wander off to other booths, or run off to lectures it was always the place that I ended up coming back to.
Overall Rezzed was a really positive experience, I am only sorry that I didn’t get to meet any of the organisers themselves (would have been really nice if Rock Paper Shotgun, Eurogamer and the others had a booth or something of their own), thanks to the importance of game journalism in the early life of most small indies, this would have been really cool if only to let us introduce ourselves.
Mixed media writing is a term that I keep on talking about, but have never really explained what it is, nor have I discussed what it means for my own work on the world of Vinland. When asked what is it that I enjoy doing most, I would have to answer “creating worlds”. While imaging new geographical locations or thinking up new characters might be interesting, it is how all these elements work together that really holds the fascination. With the emergence of ever improving technologies the interplay between these themes becomes more and more advanced, and is continually unlocking new opportunities in creating worlds. In this article I want to begin discussing just what these elements are, and how they work together.
Essentially mixed media writing is the process of creating a world through multiple platforms, each one filling in new details in the greater picture. Where a single book tells only one part of a whole, a series of books can cover multiple stories and so fill in much more detail about the entire world in which the characters are living, and thus reveal far more about the particularities of this creation compared to the reality in which we all live. Mixed media writing takes this concept a step further, building on the strengths and weaknesses of each platform to fill in even more of the detail. Currently I would argue that there are three big players in the storytelling-entertainment industry, books, film/television and games.
Books, are great at building character. This is because you can get inside that person and hear not only their dialogue and watch their action, but also listen in on their very thoughts, and it is this personal touch which really builds up how these characters behave. Film or television on the other hand allow a more visual experience, showing you how the world looks and behaves while still populating it with the interesting characters (though lacking the thought processes), and act to really dramatise any action sequences to raise a thrill that books can only dream of. Finally we have computer games, these share many of the benefits of the other two mediums (and their pitfalls), but allow the player to really experience the world. Their exploration of the world is not tied solely to the imagination of the author / director but they also have the ability to create their own tales and story from their experiences. Games give the player a world and invite them to experience it for themselves.
Individually each is of course a very powerful tool in creating their worlds. Books have started off many of the most well known; for instance Lord of the Rings or Narnia while film/television have their own franchises, think Star Trek or Star Wars, and games have theirs too such as the Elder Scrolls or Warcraft.
You will immediately thing “hold on a moment, all of these have films / books / games made of them too!”, and this just goes on to highlight just how powerful mixed media storytelling has become, and how important it is to each of these worlds, which would most likely be a mere shadow of what they are now. Each world uses the strengths and weaknesses of their medium to impart a little more of the detail of that world, and each person who consumes this does not suddenly forget what they learnt, they keep it and subsequent offerings only increase the image of this world in their mind.
In the Lord of the Rings books they may learn about how Bilbo fears the ring and its influence on him far more than you get from the films, but the films in turn impart more of a visual clue to the differences between the Orks and Uruk Hai than was possible in the books, while imparting more of a sense of the true scale of what they were up against. The games on the other hand, let you explore different areas of Middle Earth that are not covered in the books, and experience the world outside of the direct influence of the Fellowship.
Taken individually you would only get a small fraction, a tiny piece of what makes the world turn, but when these are compound the image becomes far more complete and the world takes on a life of its own.
Image courtesy of the Matrix
I had planned to use this blog to talk to you all about something really big being seen more and more often in the writing industry, namely that of “Mixed Media Storytelling” however this will need to wait until next time due to some really interesting news filtering through at the moment which has the potential to challenge the current Publisher / Writer (or studio) relationship.
Last night something rather big happened, the team behind the Monkey Island series managed to raise $400,000 in just 12 hours, without the input of a publisher.
A little background; Double Fine, the company owned by Tim Schafer, a well known game designer has been going round, cap in hand to many of the big publishers in order to get an advance, to create a new point and click adventure game. Now, considering these are the guys who made Monkey Island, probably the most famous title within that genre (if not in the gaming industry as a whole), this should have been an easy task. Unfortunately for them the publishers did not see a large enough return on investment in this dying breed of game so refused them.
Now, game designers being the passionate, stubborn people that they are, who have a burning desire to create something when an idea flashes through their minds, wouldn’t take “no” for an answer and so turned to alternative investment sources; in this instance a website dedicated to raising funds from the general public in order to start an entrepreneurial enterprise. This website is called Kickstarter.com. Kickstarter offers companies a way to create a project and advertise the need for funding to the internet, with one major stipulation; investment may not be for capital return. Rather the investors will receive producer credits when the project is done, or are entitled to other rewards depending on the level of their financial commitment. In this case, rewards went from a signed poster, to a personalised poster of the investor, to a picture of the other designer smiling (a rare occurrence I guess... clearly a man after my own heart. Photos are for looking angry in, not smiling), with each reward requiring a pledge ranging from $15 to $150,000.
Double fine asked for $400,000, with Kickstarter having the stipulation that if this minimum is not reached, then no funds are handed over. Double Fine broke all previous records for commitments, and level of funding within 24 hours, and some other stuff, having reached, and exceeded their minimum in just 12 hours. They had a month in which to raise this money. At the time of writing this article, their fund was well over $900,000.
So just what does this mean? Well, for a start the publishers are once again lagging behind public demand, a continuing trend where they just seem to be entirely out of touch with the consumer. Kickstarter is a pure, unrefined form of democracy, and the public are voting with their wallets for what they want created, not leaving it up to big men in suits. Is this case the norm? Certainly not, as we really are talking game-development superstars here; however this does have the potential to turn things around within an industry terrified by piracy (and punishing legitimate users as a result) and generally scared to take risks. Now companies can cash in on their reputation for greatness, using a long history of good, well polished products to raise capital for their next project.
So, coming back to earth for a moment; I am not a development superstar, and Zatobo is not a well loved company with a proven track record of quality, so just how will this affect us? Well, when we founded the group, we made the commitment to quality over quantity, with the intention to release a series of smaller, well polished games to raise some funds in order to expand. This technique will go hand in hand with this emerging funding model, where we can capitalise on a good name and the goodwill of our followers to provide a capital injection on future projects which will make it both more likely that we can continue doing what we love, but also free us from some of the financial burden and allow us to take risks; and it is only though risk-taking that innovation can flourish.
Of course, to actually do this we have to deliver on our promise of high quality, enjoyable games and we are working exceptionally hard on meeting this commitment. Not only is personal pride at stake here, but now we also have a financial incentive to make good material that people want to play and if this motivation is affecting us, then it will have a similar grasp on other companies and quite frankly, this can only be a good thing, both for the consumers and the industry as a whole.
Image courtesy of; www.gcommerce.co.za