The early concept work for “HRO” envisioned it as sort of Cubicle-Themed Thunder Dome — a sci-fi open-world bureaucracy sim (wow, that sounds — insane now). Players were intended to be on their own, hunting down workable solutions and implementing them perfectly from among a myriad of persistent and persnickety options. It was a cold and lonely world where only the spreadsheet-savvy survived. As development progressed, the concept was refined to become a more focused story-driven experience. But something was missing — as early play testers noted. We got a lot of questions like “Why would I want to talk to the ship’s Botanist?” and “Wait, who is that character?.” Not to mention the dreaded, “What do I do now?.” The player was alone in this world. And they were adrift.
To address this, we gave the player a digital assistant, a PAL (Personal Administrative Liaison) who pops in at the beginning and the end of each act to update the player and move the story along. An ally, of sorts, or at least a witness. Someone else in the world. PAL carries a lot of design water for us. Here are some of the ways he helps:
PAL’s primary function is to orient the player at the top of each act. He summarizes what just happened, what the next goal is, and what the avenues from getting from A to B might be. In this sense, he’s very functional and the major challenge is getting all the content in a 500 character screen limit. In the early stages of the game, he also replaces the traditional tutorial. By choosing to present PAL as VO and giving his dialogue a little edge, we also avoid some reading fatigue and warm the relationship between the player and their helper.
The role of PAL at the end of each act is very different. Here they serve a feedback role, often commenting on the success or the failure of the player’s choices. There are multiple “succeed” and “fail” endings to each act, but even within the successful options, there are some outcomes that are more desirable than others. PAL’s summary lets us signal those shades to the player and provides weight and consequence to their choices.
And finally, and most importantly, PAL’s interactions with the player connects critical story-telling dots. It’s an opportunity for us to resolve loose story ends, point the player to the next story arc, and bring together branching storylines. From a branching/converging narrative structure point of view, PAL is the bridge that allows three different story paths to share a common video summary cut-scene. His dialogue gives the player the story elements they need to connect where they were to where they’re going. This allowed us a lot more flexibility in the kinds of stories we could tell and efficiency in the video resources we could share.
The only downside to building PAL in is that now I kinda want one in my real life, too. But that’s a topic for another post…
We were really excited to have HRO included in Steam’s June “NextFest” promotion and we’re still sifting through the feedback and the observations. Eric and I wanted to thank everyone who downloaded the first demo episode of the game and especially the streamers who played online. Streamers were particularly helpful because it gave us a chance to watch real people play in real time, without our presence being a distraction or skewing the responses. It was a whole “Gorillas in the Mist” thing, except this was more like “Streamers in the Net.”
So what did we learn? Well, we learned a lot about how intuitive and effective the UI and game structure was from watching streamers navigate through the game. Generally, we watch for where players fumble and where they flounder, but we didn’t see a lot of that. It looks like the early play testing let us address most of those potential issues already. Which was a big relief. It’s nerve wracking sitting and watching players wander off the story path and get frustrated because we neglected to connect some dots.
We saw good player engagement with the story and the characters and a wide range of play styles that all seemed to work. Some players tackled the game as more of a mystery to be solved, some as a story to be enjoyed and explored and some as a series of obstacles to be overcome, and everyone seemed to find things to enjoy along the way. All the online streamers also “succeeded” in completing the first demo episode and would have moved on to episode 02 if that had been available. Yay!
This week we're moving on with content development, music composition, and voice-over casting — which is one of the most fun parts for us. We were both theatre people earlier in our lives so being on this side of the audition table is very exciting for us. Next blog post we’ll be talking about PAL (the "Personal Administrative Liaison") and how he helps orient players and move the story along within the branching and converging structure. Til then, we’ll see you in space!
When I’m working on a complex project like HRO, it’s always useful to have a conceptual anchor — an idea that can be used to guide design decisions and (hopefully) bind the disparate elements into a nice harmonious whole. Sometimes these design lodestones are there from the beginning and sometimes they evolve through the process. HRO’s anchor idea — “The Tonka Truck Lifestyle” arrived early — mostly as a result of UI experiments which then spilled out into the character and video “look and feel” as well as the story structures, puzzle style and sound design.
For those of you who didn’t grow up with them, Tonka trucks are an awesome collection of kids’ toys — mostly revolving around the construction industry. Think dump trucks, backhoes and bulldozers. They were enormous and metal and you could leave them out in the yard in the rain. I loved them when I was a kid, probably because my dad operated heavy equipment for a living. So what is the “Tonka Truck Lifestyle” in the context of video game design? It’s an aesthetic that favors choices which are robust and chunky. It’s fun. It’s brightly colored. It’s hard to break. It’s really easy to know what to do with it. It’s uncomplicated. It’s bold. It’s big gestures and lots of imagination.
The application of this idea is easiest to see in the game UI. Jewel-hued buttons clunk and ping. Dials are enormous. Nothing’s fussy. Clarity is key. Less is more, as long as the less you’re left with looks fun. And this idea can also be seen in the characters — constructed with loads of simple geometrics and a limited palettes of brights — and the universe at large. Planets are bold abstracts. Interiors are flat and put together with simple planes and minimal animation.
This aesthetic also extended into the audio design. The aforementioned big, boxy buttons yield chunky, plasticy sounds when pressed. The UI effects themselves are built from the toys that evoke the “Tonka” days of our childhood. Sampling a vintage Fisher Price Tape Recorder lent just the right level of satisfaction to pressing the fun, oversized controls. And to really capture that feeling, we extended the Unity Button system to provide audio both when a button is pressed and when it's released (why miss an opportunity for more “Tonka,” ammirite?)
The “Tonka" idea even crept into the design of the solutions available to players at the end of each act. While there are some solutions that players might be tempted to call “puzzles” in the traditional sense, by-and-large we opted to lean away from the smarty-pants and sometimes irritating brain teaser. Everything players need to choose any of the solutions in the game is included in the game. And there are always “simple” solutions provided if you just aren’t in the mood to play detective and hunt down that character’s home planet, or work through an anagram. If that’s your jam, great! If not, you will always have other solutions which require less legwork to choose from to get back to the story. Of course, the simpler solution might not lead to the same next act in the story arc… but that’s a post for another day.
As someone who makes everything more complicated than it needs to be, this approach has been a real gamechanger for me. It’s fun to make something fun (who knew!) So we hope you’ll join us in this candy-colored universe and forgive us for making a game that is maybe a little less “serious.” See you in space.
A text-based adventure game, like HRO, requires a lot of writing — this is probably not a surprise. What was a surprise was finding a new tool to generate, edit and integrate the lots and lots of written bits into the Unity engine to make an actual playable game. That tool is INK, a free text-creation tool developed and distributed by our friends at Inkle Studios — you probably know them for "Heaven’s Vault" or their recently released “Overboard” which is getting a lot of well-deserved critical attention at the moment — it’s a gem and a must-have if you love murder mysteries.
After fifteen years of writing, finding a new process is not an easy thing. But Ink’s advantages made it well-worth scaling the small learning-curve. Yes, at first glance it looks like a programming language, and there is some architecture to get used to. But once you have the basics down, Ink streamlines the writing process, especially editing, to the point where I’m not sure we could have created HRO without it. Branching text — like conversations — can be easily read and edited because Ink allows you “play” the scenes in a separate window while viewing and editing the code in real time — an intuitive, natural reading process that is also a tremendous time saver.
Ink also facilitates integration of the JSONs you create into your Unity framework by allowing the author to set flags that trigger actions in the Unity game. So the animation of a character you’re having a conversation with will change facial expressions in coordination with the dialogue, or buttons on the player’s console can be made to light up at the appropriate time, that sort of thing. Plus there’s a robust and clear system of flagging errors within Ink, so it’s easy to troubleshoot and tougher to construct files which don’t work at run-time — though I have managed that several times thanks to my own coding terribleness.
Yes, we’re officially fanbois. If you’re a creator of interactive fiction, we highly recommend checking out Ink.
We’re lucky. Lucky lucky lucky to live in a place where vaccination rates are good and Covid rates are declining and people are cautiously talking about returning to something like normal life after a year+ of wrenching crisis. Through this time a lot of us put our heads down and plowed through the work we were lucky (lucky, lucky) to have and tried not to think too much about how much had changed, how many people were suffering, and how things might look when this is finally over. But we knew that at some point we’d all have to come to terms with how the pandemic had changed us.
I had my toughest bout of new-reality-facing to-date when I sat down to edit some of the conversations in HRO’s Episode 03, “Fruit of the Bitter Tree.” A draft of this episode had been written in late 2019. I hadn’t touched it since. One of the storylines involves that classic trope of the sci-fi genre — an alien plague threatens the crew of the Endeavor. But after this year I found it almost impossible to read — mostly because of my blithe pre-pandemic treatment of the material. I hadn’t imagined that talk of quarantines, and sealing off parts of the ship to prevent the spread of disease, and vaccine-hesitancy, and charlatanesque folk-remedies would provoke dread, fear and even anger in me. Presumably there are at least some players who would feel similar things playing this episode.
And now I don’t know what to do with that material — or those feelings. Maybe this will fade as we get (hopefully) further into a recovery. Or maybe I should go back and rewrite that storyline the way I would write it today and to hell with the easy conventions of the genre. HRO has a lot of comedy in it, so maybe this topic no longer has a place in a cheeky game. Maybe history has overtaken this story idea entirely and we should replace it wholesale. I’ve seen the old "tragedy + time = comedy" equation work miracles, but I may have lost my faith in that idea in this particular instance. So what do we do with these suddenly unexpectedly painful ideas? Maybe we can’t know yet.
We’re definitely going to finish HRO. It’s a matter of figuring out what to do with this surprisingly problematic content. And that’s not a tragedy of any real scale. Many people lost a lot more (see “lucky, lucky” above). I still can’t help feeling profoundly sad about it. And clearly my sadness is about more than just this storyline because maybe after a year of anxiety and hardship we’re not going to be picking anything up exactly “where we left off.” Not even our retro-futuristic sci-fi parodies.
Almost two years ago Eric and I started working on the project which would eventually become known as “HRO: Adventures of a Humanoid Resources Officer.” The fit was perfect. It combined so many of our favorite things — adventure games and 1960’s sci-fi, puzzles, snarky dialogue and making fun of office politics. In many ways it’s been a dream assignment. Since then, we’ve (knock on wood) weathered the bulk of a pandemic, designed, rolled-out, and retired an audio-only game (OverHerd), and worked like dogs to get the first “season” of HRO on its feet. 6 full-length episodes, 20 recurring and guest characters. 118 unique branching conversations, 180 different ways the HRO of the Coalition Space Ship Endeavor might save the day. We’ve been very busy boys.
And now — as the resumption of this blog is meant to signal — it’s time to bring our players, colleagues and friends back into the process as we work to shape the experience and improve the storytelling. As part of that effort, we’ve been setting up the game’s store page on Steam — which has proven to be a surprisingly inspiring set of tasks. In the process of clearly laying out the game’s theme and its mechanics — so long after the initial concept work on the game was originally done — we found a golden chance to evaluate how far we may have hewed or strayed — for good or ill — from the original vision.
The new marketing language for the game now describes it as: "HRO: Adventures of a Humanoid Resources Officer is a puzzle-driven visual novel set in a retro-futuristic sci-fi universe. You play the underappreciated Humanoid Resources Officer aboard the Endeavor — a military spaceship with more than its fair share of crew rivalries, office politics, and erratic decision-makers. When the Endeavor stumbles into universe-shaking trouble, can you harness the power of the bureaucracy to rein in your crew’s worst impulses and survive to the next episode?”
We’re also really jazzed to announce that HRO will be included in the upcoming Steam NextFest, June 16-22. There will be some live-streaming of gameplay, and you’ll be able to playtest and give feedback on the first episode in the season, “Saints and Sinners.” It’s the one where the iron-willed Captain Spangler appears to have gone rogue — but there’s more to it than that, of course.
This is all part of the larger drive toward release of HRO — which has been officially scheduled for December 02, 2021. We admit, the date was chosen at least partially because it is a palindrome — that’s how we roll here at Worthing & Moncrieff. Thanks for sharing the ride with us. And if you’re wondering about the use of the plural of “pancreas” in the title you’ll have to play Episode 03 “Their Pound of Flesh” to find out why it’s here…
There’s a venerable tradition in the writing world. It’s called the Sh*tty First Draft. I first encountered this idea in a playwrighting workshop at Grub Street a bunch of years ago. It goes something like this: start your story at the beginning and write it through all the way to the end. If you get stuck, just jam anything in for now. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to get you from A to B, story-wise. You can always go back and change the crappy bits later. Basically, it’s permission. Permission to not be perfect. Permission to start somewhere. It’s liberating. I love it.
Our newest game, HRO, is about at the prototype stage — we’ll have a single “episode” or chapter for play testers and demo’ing shortly. But, with an eye to eventual release of the full game, we’ve started outlining all the episodes in the proposed “season” and I’m in full sh*tty first draft mode. Is that plot twist believable? God no. Will players be able to follow that story arc? Probably not. Is that a reasonable way to resolve that conflict? I don’t think so. But it gives us somewhere to start. And it allows us to plan all the sandbox puzzles for the entire game so we can build in the needed diversity and functionality from the start, which will hopefully save us development time down the line.
It also allows us, for the first time, to see the complete sweep of the game — at least in first draft form. How does the arc of the “season” unfold? How does a particular episode affect the one that follows it? What are all the player-instigated changes we’ll need to track as the game progresses? It also allows us to take a good long look at balancing the experience. We can see how many times we’re asking players to solve puzzles with each of the available sandbox mechanics. We can see how many times each of the regular cast members appear in the game, and whether we’re using our secondary characters well. We now know who our “guest stars” for each episode will be so they can be sketched and created. It’s a time of big-picture planning and big, season-spanning thinking. And things are starting to come into focus.
It’s an exciting time for us here at Worthing & Moncrieff. Stay tuned as the story develops!
Last week saw a bit of a milestone for our new project HRO: Adventures of a Humanoid Resources Officer — we completed a working draft of all the branching narrative content for the first “episode” of the game. This first level will serve as our playtesting prototype, so getting this on its feet has been priority for us. Part of drafting the first episode included outlining all six planned episodes in the first season so we could know how they fit together and what we’ll need to include to accomplish all our narrative goals.
This process provoked some interesting questions about player choice and what, exactly, makes a choice interesting for a player. One seemingly obvious answer is that interesting choices are choices which have big results. World-shaking, make-or-break, put-it-all-on-the-line, life-or-death types of decisions. I don’t love this answer. If everything is a 10 on the drama scale, nothing seems particularly important. And life isn’t made up of one earth-shattering choice after another. It’s also tough to build genuine human stories out of nothing but technicolor fireworks moments.
Traditionally, player choice and the impacts of those choices have either been cosmetic -- ultimately landing the player in a pre-determined spot regardless of choices made -- or consequential in the short-term (usually as side-quests) but leaving the base experience "on rails." We're looking at linking all the episodes in a "season" of HRO modularly so player actions unlock different stories, puzzles and potential interactions across the entire experience. So completing Episode 1 by sending a critical crew member on vacation will give the player a different set of given circumstances at the beginning of Episode 2 than if the player had chosen to forge the navigational records to hide the Captain's crime, for example.
One of my favorite things about our last project, Austen Translation, was a conversation I had with a player at the last Boston Festival of Independent Games (BFIG). Austen’s a strategy game dressed up like a dating sim, and this player was making terrible choices and losing — like really obviously losing. After he finished I asked him about it — to make sure our game mechanic wasn’t too obscure or he hadn’t misunderstood the tutorial. He assured me that he knew he was losing, but he was making choices which seemed right for his character. I loved that. His sense of character was so strong that he preferred to play and lose the game in character rather than min-max the strategic options. Those kinds of emotional connections between a player and a game experience are gold, and we’re looking at ways to foster a similar sense of control and consequence for an HRO player.
In part, I was thrilled with that Austen player’s response because that’s the way that I tend to play games. I pick my Rimworld survivors based on how much I like them, not necessarily on their chances for success. I’ve played Brittany and Provence in Europa Universalis IV not because I thought I would win with these plucky upstarts, but because I wanted to stick it to France (they think they’re such an Empire… they make me so mad!) I can’t tell you how many ships I trained up for in Eve Online because they looked cool. I’m not against winning. I love to win. But the best win of all is when I can win by doing it my own way -- making my own sometimes unorthodox choices.
For the HRO prototype we’re working on making the choices feel consequential for the player, whether they have a dramatic effect on the course of the story events or not. Some will. Some dialogue choices will unlock solutions the player won’t otherwise hear about. Some solutions to each act will remove future options from play, or open up different storylines, or even in some cases, cause characters to die or disappear from the game. Most won’t. If we can get the player to care enough about their humble protagonist, then the choice to suck up to a egomaniacal Captain Spangler or to defy her iron will create stakes high enough to keep them engaged on their journey through the HRO universe. We’re shooting for choices which create emotional connections and maybe, sometimes -- if the player is very brave -- allow them to save the universe.
This may be the time lots of folks are gearing down for lazy, hot, barbecue-filled summer afternoons, but here at Worthing & Moncrieff, we’re hard at work generating all the assets we’ll need for a playable prototype of the entire first episode of “HRO: Adventures of a Humanoid Resources Officer.” As part of that process, I sat down last week to put together the art for the locations which will appear behind the characters when the player is talking with them via video link. In keeping with our television series frame, we’ve been calling them “sets.” Below are some of the original sketches, and farther down then there’s a set of first-draft art to show how they’ll look — in the prototype at least.
Part of the challenge is volume — as in quantity. In episode one alone there are something like 16 different locations, mostly aboard the spaceship Endeavor. Of course, like any budget-conscious serial, we’ll be re-using sets (since some locations like the Captain’s office are bound to be seen again). The other big design challenge is the context. The player will only ever see these locations behind a character’s head, so all the visual interest and all the animated bits have to take pace at the extreme left and right of the image, while still being recognizably the places they are supposed to represent.
We spent a lot of time looking at the sets the early 1960’s/70’s science fiction series used. Most of these were (not surprisingly) terrible. But there were tricks we could benefit from — the random piece of “technical-looking” panel applied to an otherwise blank wall, for example. And the charm of the randomly blinking light. Some basic animations (like the aforementioned blinking lights) will be added when the sprite sheets for each location are put together.
And then there were considerations of the other kind of volume — the kind you get from using depth and perspective technique. Originally, the sets were conceived of as relatively “flat” — really just a decorative horizontal plane slapped behind the character. But by exaggerating and shifting the perspective, we found we could achieve some fun variations which suggest camera placement at odd angles and imply some larger spaces. We also spent some time with unifying all the spaces which appear in the same general locale — like all the ones on the Endeavor, or all the spaces on the enemy ships — through consistent color palettes and furniture styles.
We hope you enjoyed this behind-the-curtain glimpse into our process. Stay tuned as we get the prototype on its feet. We’ll share some screen grabs as we go. In the meantime, why aren’t you out there grilling something? It’s officially summer!
Picking a strong name for a new game project is a soaring joy for our creative selves — and a potential minefield for our business selves. There are so many seemingly competing interests in the process! And with boundless choices, the temptation is often to stay at the table long past the time to make a choice has come and gone.
I’m sure some studios approach this process differently, but this is how we look at it: we look for names which are memorable, distinct, and informative. For our new hybrid story/puzzle game — whose goal is to harness the power of the bureaucracy to save your space ship’s hapless crew from their own worst impulses — we had a lot of excellent options. In the end, we sat down with "HRO: Adventures of a Humanoid Resources Officer" and here’s why.
This choice clearly illustrates the core conflict of the game — that the small-in-stature player-protagonist (identified by an institutional-sounding acronym "the HRO") is actually the one who makes all the difference to the story (the H(e)RO). We also love that when you say the acronym aloud you can hear the word “hero” which get us both of these elements in one elegant, acoustic swoop.
When it’s paired with its subtitle, as in "HRO: Adventures of a Humanoid Resources Officer," we also get the contrasting sound of a paper-pusher job description paired with the unexpected word “Adventure.” This is then further transformed by the use of the word “Humanoid” to get us to a sci-fi head space. The strong contrasts are not only contextually and inherently exciting (memorable), they also set this name and this game off from the bulk of sci-fi-themed adventure games (distinct) and cue the player to expect humor and irreverence (informative).
Plus, it can be shortened to the poppy in-the-know shorthand of “HRO” once the audience knows the premise of the game, which gives us editorial and marketing flexibility.
We're looking forward to sharing more of our process with you as the project develops. Next time we'll take a look at the design of the Endeavor, the vessel on which the player character serves. We’ve got an exciting ride in store. We hope you'll join us!
Worthing and Moncrieff, LLC is an independent developer of video game stories founded in 2015.