Thursday, October 8, 2015

Badluck shares Ara Fell's development story with RMN - RMN

I'm posting this here, because in this blog post, Badluck briefly touches upon a couple of the pitfalls that comes with working with rpgmaker2003 and indie games overall - something I think everyone should eventually read and be made aware of while working on an independent game of any kind:

There are a lot of stories like this one, that we don't get to hear, that raise awareness of certain issues, that we really need to learn how to avoid, while developing games.

You can read the original post here on RMN.

"I've been asked this before by several people, so I thought I'd explain things. This is the story of how I got here. I'll make another post about the Ara Fell remake another time. This isn't about the remake. This is about why I'm remaking it.

Fair warning. It's a little sentimental.

Ten years ago (it seems crazy to even type that), I made Ara Fell. It was my third game, after Tarion Star and some unnamed but serious RPG Maker 95 project, and the first one that was any good. Ara Fell was a huge, complicated project, and far too ambitious for what I was capable of at the time. More than a few people warned me of this, but I enjoyed the challenge, and decided to just go with my first instinct, and let the chips fall where they may. I had planned for Ara Fell to be a 10 part series, with "The Legend of Dirisetsu Hollow" as the first installment, parts 1 and 2. That's a hell of a project. By the end of it, I was probably looking at something twice as big as Chrono Trigger, and Chrono Trigger is a big-ass game.

Ara Fell was a flawed game in many ways, but it was a labor of love. This sounds sentimental, and maybe it is, but I really cherished my time putting it together. And somehow, through all the mistakes and bad ideas, I strung together enough coherent thoughts to actually create something I could release. It was still buggy and unpolished when I did, but I was completely burnt out. It was the best I could do, and even in its imperfect state, it meant a lot to me. Ara Fell was released and greeted with modest acclaim and a good reception on the old gamingw forums. I enjoyed the attention. It felt good to have made something people seemed to care about. I immediately began working on the sequel, but quickly realized I was in way over my head... There was no way I was going to be able to pull this off. And that was that. It was like turning off a light switch, or setting down a bag of bricks. I gave up. Ara Fell was dead.

Two years later, after many failed attempts at getting a game going, I started working on Rise of the Third Power(I'll just politely request that those who remember Starlancer Six pretend they forgot about it...) This was a much better game than Ara Fell, at least in technical terms. By the time I got to R3P, I legitimately knew what I was doing. I knew how to make an RPG Maker 2003 game. I had a lot of experience. I had learned from my past mistakes. R3P would have simple systems, straightforward gameplay, a solid and competently-written story.

All I had to do was follow the RPG-making formula. No gimmicks, no special bullshit. I didn't need a 24 hour clock with a day and night cycle. I didn't need a big, fancy CMS. I didn't need to give the player the ability to sprint or crawl, I didn't need cinematic cutscenes with pictures flying around everywhere. No, I just had to write a good story and make an attractive, polished game. No problem. It was still a big project, sure... but I could do it. This was something I was capable of, and capable of doing well. It was something I was capable of actually finishing.

Still, though I loved working on Rise of the Third Power, there was just something missing from it; some intangible thing that Ara Fell possessed that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Honestly, I still can't. But I felt a connection with Ara Fell that I didn't with Rise of the Third Power. Maybe that's just me being childish or naive, but whatever it was, Ara Fell ignited something in me. R3P was a game I liked making. AF was something more than that.

I think a lot of us feel that way as content creators. Authors have a story inside of them they really want to tell, composers have that song inside of them they really want to sing... and game developers have that game in us we really want to play. For me, it wasn't Rise of the Third Power. It was Ara Fell.

I struggled with this a while, still chipping away at R3P, still making progress, still making the solid game I intended to make. I still enjoyed it, after all. I didn't hate R3P. Hell, I loved it. Let's just get this done, I thought, and maybe I can come back to Ara Fell some day.

That all changed one day, though. An email I hadn't expected showed up in my inbox.

It was from Amanda Fitch, creator of Aveyond, someone who I had no previous correspondence with. She contacted me to say that Ara Fell was very popular on her website, and suggested I make a game with RMXP; a commercial game, one that I could sell. She enticed me with stories of her success, of how much easier it was than she had expected. Still hard work, but not the herculean task that it seemed at first. She was making good money, and doing it by selling what I thought was, with all due respect to Amanda, a pretty mediocre product. But she started her own business and was kicking ass with it. And more than that, Aveyond was the game she really wanted to make. Aveyond was her Ara Fell. Say what you want about that game, but it was a labor of love for her too.

This, I thought, was my big break. If Aveyond could do well, imagine what I could do with Ara Fell... That's what I thought to myself, anyway.

I tried to finish Rise of the Third Power. It was important to have a completed project, and R3P still meant a lot to me. Even so, I found myself lacking motivation. I loved it, but I felt like I was wasting my time on it. I couldn't sell it, so what was the point? This was not a wise investment, or so I told myself, no matter how good it might turn out to be. And besides, switching to RMXP to work on a new game would bring me back to the one project I really loved...

I cancelled R3P and Ara Fell XP was born. I found myself an artist (who is still with me today) and a programmer (we're still close friends), and together we set to work on making the sequel, the game I had always wanted to make. I tried to put together, from scratch, what I had always imagined Ara Fell should be, now with the tools and talented people around me to actually see it through.

Below are screenshots of Ara Fell XP.

I made damn near 250 maps for this game, all the towns fleshed out, connected them all, placed all the NPCs. Custom systems were being implemented, pixel movement and real time combat and fancy spells... But I hadn't learned from my mistakes after all. In fact, I repeated them. Ara Fell XP was not only too ambitious of a project for my skill level, it was too ambitious a project to be making in RPG Maker XP.

... and the more we worked on it, the more we realized RMXP was just not going to work. Ara Fell XP was a huge, ambitious project being made by 3 people who had never completed a game before, trying to build it in something that wasn't built to handle it.

To remedy this, instead of admitting the problem, I made the absolute biggest mistake I've ever made in regards to game making...

My programmer and I decided to make our own game maker. The plan was simple; he'd make the maker, I'd make the game, and we'd develop both alongside one another. So Ara Fell XP was shelved and Operation: PROPHET and the Frost game maker was born.

That sounds crazy, I know. But for a time it worked. O:P was a side-scrolling shooter built like XCOM, with randomly generated missions where your score at the end allowed you to conduct research to develop new ships, weapons and abilities. The idea was solid, and the game we started churning out was actually fun, or at least I thought so. We slowly began to realize this project was over our heads as well, but we made real, consistent progress. In time, we actually had a product that wasn't all that far from completion. Some particle effects here, some menus there, a few boss battles... We could see light at the end of the tunnel. But there was one problem... We all hated working on it.

Ara Fell and AFXP were fun to make, for lots of reasons. But most of all, those game meant something to me. Operation: PROPHET didn't, not to any of us. It was just another roadblock keeping me from what I had always wanted to work on. My team would go for months with no progress on O:P, getting inspired for a week or so once in a while, then losing interest again.

It went on like this until finally I contacted the programmer and artist, and we all were forced to admit this wasn't going to work. So here I was again, in over my head with a half-finished game I couldn't do anything with. All the while, Amanda had released her third or fourth Aveyond game, Skyborn was generating huge sales on Steam,To the Moon was a viral sensation... and here I was with two dead projects that I had smothered in their sleep. I had tried so many things and failed at them all. And these really were my failures. Maybe it was time to give up... Start focusing on my career instead of this pipe dream I clearly wasn't prepared to handle.

But something I didn't expect happened.

RPG Maker 2003 was released in English. "Cute," I thought. "I ought to go back to doing something I'm good at." I actually remember that moment, rolling my eyes at the idea, remembering fondly when making games was something I loved instead of hated.

Mid eye-roll, it dawned me.

Ara Fell, the game I had always loved... wasn't it theoretically very near a commercial state as it was? REFMAP assets were free to use in commercial projects. Sure, I'd have to replace the soundtrack, but I already had one composed for Ara Fell XP just sitting on a CD in my desk gathering dust. I'd need to replace some graphics, but I already had an artist who was inexplicably willing to stick with me through all this. So all I'd have to do is maybe fix up the writing a little, replace a few things, polish it up, fix the bugs and it'd be ready to go, right?

Not so. I opened up Ara Fell and gave it a play through to see what I'd need to do... and it was a freaking mess. Let me tell you, playing Ara Fell again after so many years was a humbling experience. It was still pretty. The maps were still nice, if a little overly cluttered. But... god, how could I have ever let myself write this? How could I have released it with so many bugs? And why the hell did I think weapon switching was a good idea??

So, now what do I do? I remember staring blankly at some buggy cutscene with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

If I was really going to sell this game... I was going to turn it into something that was worthy of being sold. This thing wouldn't see the light of day until I was really, truly happy with it, no matter what. I made myself a promise. If you're going to accept money for this, your god damn better make sure it's worth paying for.

So I set to work, some five months ago now. It was surreal and clumsy to be back at it again after ten years, but it all started coming back to me. Cliche as it sounds, it was like riding a bike. But what also began to return was the passion I had once felt for game-making and story-telling. That spark I had when I first started this that had slowly fizzled out after reeling from failure after failure. Remember that excited feeling you had when you first opened up RPG Maker, and realize you could do whatever you wanted with it?

For the first time in years, I felt it again.

I've rewritten Ara Fell's story. I've completely remade the battle system. I've retooled the dungeons. I've added new areas, quests, side dungeons and other content. There are new graphics and graphical edits. And this time, Ara Fell will have a proper ending.

And I think... think... that I'll be able to fulfill my promise. I'm not going to sell Ara Fell just because I can. I'm going to make a game that's worthy of being sold.

And when I'm done, maybe I can finally get some closure on this damn thing...

It might be all or nothing for me on this one. If I fall here, I'm going to fall hard, probably for the last time. There's a door in front of me, and I don't know if it's locked. If you'll excuse the sloppy metaphor, all I can do is throw myself against it at this point, and hope it's a door that opens."

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