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Postmortem: Technocrat's cyberpunk adventure game Technobabylon

James Dearden of Technocrat Games talks about the highs and lows developing Technobabylon, a classic 1990s-style cyberpunk adventure game that was five years in the making.

Today, Technocrat Games founder James Dearden takes us behind the scenes of the development of Technobabylon, and explains why it took took five years from concept to completion. This well-received indie cyberpunk game captures the look and feel of classic point-and-click adventures, but adds its own unique spin to the genre. 

Technobabylon began as a practice project made in Adventure Game Studio (AGS) in 2010. I was working overseas, being extremely antisocial, and I decided to get cracking on something I could do with minimal human contact. At this point, I'd made three other games using AGS - a puzzle game, a “lander” game, and a turn-based strategy. This was the first time I'd tried to use AGS for its intended purpose: to create a 1990s-style adventure.

Like many AGS users, my formative experiences in gaming involved classics like Beneath a Steel Sky, Fate of Atlantis and Broken Sword. I've always loved games with a great deal of narrative to them, and the most unique thing about games is their interactivity. By giving the player agency in the plot, games allow storytelling in a way that no other medium can.

So before I get started on a big adventure, I thought that I'd better have a practice run at how this whole “adventure” thing worked. After a few weeks of tinkering and applying anything I could remember from ten-year-old art lessons, I had a one room “escape” game, which involved trying to get a young woman out of her room. I also had a better understanding of how AGS operated. Putting it up on the AGS forum for people to try, I started to get a surprisingly positive response.

Today, 'room escape' is almost a sub-genre of its own, and my short narrative involving freeing a young woman from the studio-of-the-future seemed to resonate. Part 2 expanded the number of characters, and gave a larger perspective on the setting as I started to play around with vaguely sci-fi worldbuilding concepts and introduced the society that she was part of. This proved even more popular, and I began to receive e-mails asking for more details of the setting, and where the story might be going. That's when I resolved to sit down and plan out a plot that actually went somewhere. Four and a half years later, we have Technobabylon as a full-length adventure.

Technobabylon was released for PC in May 2015 by indie publisher Wadjet Eye GamesThe game is set in Newton, an independent city-state on the Horn of Africa, in the year 2087. Thanks to advances in computing and mind-machine interfacing, a new subclass has arisen amongst young people spending much of their lives hooked into the communal-dream that represents the internet -- known as the Trance. Those with more worldly concerns live in cities coordinated by benign AI controllers – not rulers, merely the apparatus to ensure maximum efficiency on behalf of the governments.

Players experience the game from both sides of this society – firstly as Latha, an unemployed Trance-addict who finds herself targeted for assassination by forces she never knew existed. Secondly, as Dr Charlie Regis and Dr Max Lao, agents of Newton's police agency CEL, working directly under the command of the city's AI Governor.

This is the background for an early-nineties styled point-and-click adventure, with homages to the classics of cyberpunk and science fiction in all forms; film, literature, anime and especially the games that came before it and that it seeks to capture the feeling of.

What Went Right

1. The Plot

I've always been a big fan of science-fiction in books, films, TV and games. It allows for limitless possibilities, and the potential to explore not just technology, but also human nature. For years, I've had little flashes of thought about what would make a good plot for a sci-fi story, and made little notes here and there for later. Technobabylon represented a kind of critical mass – I'd finally come up with enough small elements to knit together into a bigger narrative.

When it came to planning the game out, a large part of my focus was devoted to worldbuilding. Even if elements were never going to be directly mentioned in-game, I felt it was important, to know what was going on in it; things would affect how a character would behave, what they might say or think. Fortunately, games allow for the possibility of the player picking up a lot more of the extraneous world-detail than other media since you are able to explore at their own pace.

Once the world of the story was built, I began to construct the plot from smaller ideas I'd had before. Concepts like “Is it kidnapping if someone steals fertilised embryos?” and “what if the players are working for the all-seeing supercomputer running the city?” became parts of the structure, and refined to work together. Sometimes, I'd have to drop an element when I realized “oh, hang on, that was in Deus Ex/Neuromancer/Ghost in the Shell.” In the end, a plot took shape which, while recognizably drawing elements from cyberpunk, asked enough of its own questions and followed a new path.

2: Art

I am a terrible artist. I'll admit that quite freely, and after making the first three parts of Technobabylon as episodes, I'd realised that this was going to be my biggest obstacle. I'd relied on pixel-art as a means of simplifying things to such an extent that I could cover my artistic deficiencies. I can make 3D models, but these wouldn't fit the style of early-nineties adventure art. So, I realised I'd have to outsource this. As my mother would say, “if at first you don't succeed, hire someone else to do it for you.”

I'd seen Ben Chandler's work in his own games, and he's a skilled artist, particularly when it comes to the retro. I sent him an e-mail about whether he'd be interested in joining in on this project, and in response I received a completely-redone version of Technobabylon's first scene, in a much nicer and cleaner style of pixel-art than I was capable of.

At the time, Ben's own weakness, he told me, was perspective, which led us to a fortunate opportunity to compromise – I would construct the scenes in 3D using Blender, and he would apply his talents to make them look not only like they belonged in the early nineties, but that they were oozing with anarchic style. 

Adding background details and glowing neon, with a healthy dose of urban decay, Ben knew exactly what each scene needed to make it look like it had come straight out of the golden age of cyberpunk. It took someone else's talent to make it look like the game I'd envisioned!

3: Wadjet Eye

Technobabylon made it to retail in large part due to its publisher, Wadjet Eye Games. The first time I'd heard of Wadjet Eye was reading PC Gamer's review for the Shivah, after which I (along with others, apparently) had confused its designer Dave Gilbert with legendary Monkey Island designer Ron Gilbert. I was impressed that games in this style were still being made and released, and that people would still play and appreciate them. The company went on to publish Joshua Nuernberger's Gemini Rue – from there, getting Wadjet Eye onboard with the project became my “unrealistic best-case outcome” for when I finished developing Technobabylon. As it turned out, this ended up being the case before the full game even got underway.

I got to meet Dave Gilbert in 2012 at AdventureX, a gathering devoted to point-and-click adventures in London. I was able to showcase a demo of the latest re-re-remake of the game's first section I'd engineered for the show, and asked Mr Gilbert what, in his opinion, it would take to get Wadjet Eye to support the project. Among his suggestions was improvement for the art, which led me to get Ben Chandler onboard, and in fact helped seal the deal.

At the time, Ben was also doing the art for Wadjet Eye's Blackwell Epiphany, and was soon to become their first full-time employee (besides Dave and his wife, Janet). From his privileged position, he was able to help my case for what Technobabylon could become, with their support. By AdventureX 2013, we were coming up with an arrangement before I'd even gotten beyond a demo of the new version of the game.


 

Working with Wadjet Eye has allowed this game to go much farther than I'd originally hoped. With their artistic support, along with the involvement of Dave Gilbert in the recording of the voices, the game's been able to be engineered much more completely than if it had just been me alone. In addition, it has allowed for a great deal more media attention. Wadjet Eye is today synonymous with independent adventures, and their cachet has given Technobabylon a leg-up in terms of attention, in addition to enabling access to Steam without the need for Greenlight. Making the right contacts with the right people has been a huge part of getting Technobabylon made.

4: Change from Episodic to Full-length

When first making Technobabylon I was concerned that, like many other projects I'd started, there was considerable risk of running out of energy and consigning the game to the “unfinished” pile. To help keep the momentum going, I decided that there needed to be goals – tangible stages where I could say “this is done”, and release what I'd made to the public. So, rather than spending months working on an enormous freeware project, I opted to build the game as a series of episodes. For the initial practice project, this worked well; it allowed for visible improvement between episodes, and a decent enough reason for changes in quality and style from section to section.

However, when it came to getting onboard with Wadjet Eye, it was made quite clear that an episodic project was not something they wanted. This is understandable – it's not a model that WEG have used before, it would be very awkward to construct and market through Steam with the way that AGS works. The switch to a full-length game allowed us to make changes to the plot and drop elements that would not quite have worked as part of a larger narrative. In terms of the story, the game is still divided into chapters that loosely represent what would have been freeware episodes under the original plan, but the change allowed us to finish up with a stronger product in the end, and a more complex narrative.

5: Representation

One thing that has been remarked upon by many reviewers and players of the game has been its inclusivity. Two of its three main characters are women, one of whom is transgender, and the cast represents a broad selection of national backgrounds. Even some reviewers I expected to be more right-leaning have commented positively on Technobabylon's portrayal of otherwise under-represented groups in the game, saying that they didn't feel like they were being beaten over the head with it as may have been done in some media.

This was not intended as a heavy-handed commentary when first planning the game – Newton, Technobabylon's setting, is a cosmopolitan city with immigrants from all across the world making up its population. Compound that with its location on the Horn of Africa overlooking the Indian Ocean, and it would have strained credibility not to have African and Asian characters. By allowing for such representation to be organic to the story, we've been able to diversify the backgrounds of characters with the goal simply of creating a more interesting plot, and additionally allow for representation of the kind not often seen in the games of larger developers. We simply wanted to show a world where things are going right with regards to this area, to such an extent that it's become a non-issue in many ways.

What Went Wrong

1: AGS

Since 2009, AGS has been my engine of choice. Even for non-adventure games, I've enjoyed stretching its capabilities to produce turn-based strategy and arcade games. While it's even better for making adventures, the challenges that it created while making Technobabylon have started to outweigh the benefits of its dedicated adventure-creation for me. If you're looking to start somewhere, I'd still wholeheartedly recommend AGS, but personally I'm going to be making the move to Unity or Unreal.

At first, using an adventure engine to make an adventure game seems perfectly logical. But problems began to manifest as the development process went on. It isn't a system that likes to share – there isn't a way to split development of different assets and modules across a team, beyond a separation into “art”, “audio” and “everything else”. Saved games aren’t backwards compatible, which makes patches nearly impossible to implement. While some may see this as a boon (after all, how would Assassin's Creed Unity have been if they'd had to get everything correct out of the door?), it means that, with the exception of major game-breaking issues, we are unable to update the game following its release. This also prevents us from releasing extra language updates in the future.

The third major issue with AGS, and the one that is chiefly driving me to change, is compatibility. The games will run in Windows, and by default, that's just about it. Some tweaking can make them Mac and Linux compatible, but this takes specialized engineering by Wadjet Eye's staff. Even when the games work in Windows, there are often compatibility issues with graphics. AGS has been a useful place to start, but the number of difficulties it's added to this production have encouraged me to move on.

2: Stop-Start-Stop-Start

Technobabylon began its development in 2010, had three episodes, and then kind of stalled for about four years. Several attempts to get Part 4 off the ground were not satisfactory, partly because of the game's original intention. Starting as a practice project, I'd get half-way through Part 4, then find that my own art style had improved (or simply changed), meaning that characters and scenery no longer resembled their counterparts from the beginning of the episode's production. Deciding to apply this newer style across the board, I set out to remake the earlier sections of the game, but each time had the same result. Because of this, there are roughly five different versions of the first section of Technobabylon, almost word-for-word the same, but differing in presentation.

Unsatisfied with each effort, I would keep clearing out and beginning again, a cycle which continued until 2014, when I finally decided to leave the art in the hands of someone more competent than myself. Unfortunately, my previous turnover of a new section every few months had been completely scuppered by these delays. For me, being able to complete a project in sections is a tremendous aid in getting through something as large as this. By reaching these tangible goals, it feels less like a marathon, and more like a series of shorter, more manageable races.

Wholly rebuilding the first sections not only delayed getting the game itself finished, but created a feeling of going around in circles, creating lingering doubt as to whether I'd ever be able to complete it. Doubts would always pop up, and it was very difficult to stay on track while I was handling the art assets as well. In the same sense that different people have different preferred styles of learning, I think that there's a lot to be said for finding a work approach that is effective for individuals – I need to identify a way to stay on-track for any future projects, rather than simply relying on the skill of others to fill the gaps that are causing me to fluster.

3: Bugs in the review build

As mentioned earlier, games built in AGS are not easy to fix once released, as saved games are rendered incompatible. Towards the end of development, as with other games, we had a few months of “crunch time”, where we'd work through the game with testers to root out and destroy any bugs in the game. The danger with this is that you keep on finding things to fix, just a little tweak here and there, and it ends up becoming a cycle of tiny changes (some that cause new problems themselves) that never ends.

Eventually of course, we'd have to release something to show to the press for reviews before the game itself came out, and we did. We'd made sure that the game was playable from start to finish, and sent it out to the reviewers – this of course was when we started getting reports of a couple more game-breaking bugs that the testers had found since the review build went out. A couple of them were fairly egregious, the kind of thing I feel like I should have spotted months earlier in the development process.

My first hope was that reviewers may simply miss them – if they were following the walkthrough provided, they might never find the errors. Obviously I'd underestimated them, as Wadjet Eye's public relations soon started to receive e-mails reporting these problems.

'


 

Dave assured me that reviewers would understand that this was an unfinished version, and that bugs were to be expected (as long as we'd squashed them by the final release). Based on the reviews that the game eventually received, this seems to have been the case. Part of me feels that we could have made a better impression with a couple more weeks of testing, and I would kick myself when one of those reports came in. These things have to be released eventually though, and at least I can say we got through it in the end. There are still a few issues here and there, but nothing serious.

4: The Ending

As I planned Technobabylon, I wanted to give it a suitably grand ending, with the concept of the human mind fusing with an all-knowing artificial intelligence. Then, I remembered that this was in fact the ending to Deus Ex, and that I'd have to come up with something else.

I'd spent several years planning what was going into the game, but realised that I'd put remarkably little thought into the ending. The downside with adventure games is that, unlike many other genres, one can't finish with a boss-battle. The changes I made to it also prevented me from taking the player's actions throughout the game into account to anywhere near the extent I would have liked. I wanted multiple endings and I detest the Mass Effect 3 style of “Press button A for red explosion, button B for blue explosion” way to end a game, but unfortunately a large part of Technobabylon's ending ended up being dominated by a binary choice towards the end of the game. I aimed to ameliorate this by giving more detail and difference to the endings than the colour scheme, but I knew that it wasn't going to please everyone, and I'm sure I could have done it much better.

The other issue we had was that the endings (and the part leading up to them) didn't get nearly as much testing as they should have. The continued problem of saves breaking meant that, with each update to the game's beta (weekly), the testers would have to restart the game from the beginning. As a result, we got a lot of feedback about the first half of the game, but not a great deal for the latter. A mad rush of testing towards the end of production led to fixes for the most serious issues again, but I still feel that I ought to have given the last section more work.

5: The Style

This is a controversial one – I like the style, and our artists (Ben Chandler and Ivan Ulyanov, who dealt with the character portraits) have done tremendous work. '90s-style pixel art exactly captured the feel of the game I was looking for, evoking the memory of games like Beneath a Steel Sky. It's straightforward to make, not resource-intensive, and a signature style of Wadjet Eye games today. However, if I could send e-mails backwards in time, I would advise myself to consider other options – maybe something higher-resolution, or potentially 3D.

While I and other players of indie games like Technobabylon have a fondness for the style, one of the most frequent comments I see from casual observers on the internet is “ugh, those graphics!” Many players today are unable to parse the blocky style, and perceive the game as somehow cheaper or inferior based upon its style. While I personally disagree with them, I can't help but wonder if sticking to the style has potentially cost us sales, and am endeavoring to explore other options for future games.

Conclusion

Making Technobabylon has been a fantastic experience. It started as a learning experience, and in many ways has continued to be so as I've gotten to grips with the realities of making a full-length game. There are certainly a few things which, in hindsight, could have been done differently, but these now become sources of experience from which to make the next game even better.

As to where we go next, there are all kinds of options. Maybe another adventure, maybe something different, perhaps even a Technobabylon sequel since we've had people asking about it, and others suggesting I get into VR with Oculus Rift. I’ve got to start experimenting with Unity though, so the chances are that the next game you see from me will be another practice project – but as we've seen, who knows where that could go?

Technobabylon By The Numbers

Developer: Technocrat Games

Publisher: Wadjet Eye Games

Staff: 1 Writer/programmer (me), 2 artists, 1 music/sound engineer, 76 voice actors, 1 public relations and a Dave Gilbert

Development Time: 18 months (excluding freeware versions - 4.5 years including them)

Total Cost of Development: ~$40k [that's just out of pocket costs, doesn't include employee salaries, but it's the best number we can come up with]

Release Date: May 21, 2015

Lines of Dialogue: 11,324 (~8 percent the amount in Deus Ex: Human Revolution)

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