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Postmortem: Kat Games' Dream Chronicles

Casual title Dream Chronicles has helped to introduce classic Myst-style adventure gaming to the PC casual market, and in this exclusive Gamasutra postmortem, creator Tartaj explains its genesis.

[In this postmortem, Miguel Tartaj, lead game designer for Kat Games, recounts his story about making his long-held dream come true in the form of casual adventure game Dream Chronicles. This postmortem highlights that, as the development processes in the casual industry draw closer to traditional games development, so too do the experiences of the developers.]

Even before the first breakaway hidden object games hit computer screens, my team at Kat Games had a dream: create a game with an unproven mechanic in the casual space, a game deeply committed to building a story world, a game where every action the player took connected her to a mysterious and compelling storyline.

But this dream required pushing the boundaries of what we had seen before -- art budget, performance, and player appetites would all be put to the test. "Dream weaving" became a recurring theme for us as we moonlighted on Dream Chronicles during other projects, hoping the game would one day get the funding and attention we felt it deserved.

In the end, Dream Chronicles has been well-received both by the public and by websites such as Gamezebo, which explains that the game is "...best described as a casual cousin to epic, hard-core adventures like Myst and Uru... In traditional adventure form, your quest in Dream Chronicles is accomplished location by location. Each scene, 32 in all, incorporates one or more puzzles to be solved, with thorough investigation crucial to advancing."

With the February launch of the sequel, Dream Chronicles 2: The Eternal Maze, I wanted to share with the Gamasutra development community the many decisions leading up to the development of Dream Chronicles, our quest to find the right partner, and the key learnings that we unearthed during the creative process developing the title.

I Had a Dream: A New Casual Game

tartaj.jpgWhen we first envisioned Dream Chronicles, we knew we wanted to rise to the challenge in the space to innovate on existing casual game models and create the first casual adventure game "for everyone."

For starters, the gameplay had to be anchored in a strong story world -- something that we found to be critical in successful casual games -- and a vision we later found to be a strong shared value with our eventual publisher, PlayFirst.

While developing this story world, we also knew that we needed to find some creative ways to minimize costs -- without sacrificing our vision. We explored one way to do this by limiting the number of "graphical characters in the game," which meant keeping the game in first person.

We focused on coming up with various storylines to support this, and eventually became excited about the idea of centering the story on a character who wakes up in the aftermath of a sleeping spell cast by an evil fairy. Creating a world around a "dreamlike state" such as this really excited us and I knew we could make something different. After reaching consensus on the design direction, we started incorporating an appealing Art Nouveau style into the game.

We also wanted to break the mold in terms of gameplay -- in Dream Chronicles, every scene is different. Introducing casual gamers to the adventure style of gameplay was a core vision of ours. This was a departure from other casual game styles at that point in time, where the setting remained the same but the situations and challenges varied from level to level. In Dream Chronicles, a player's actions directly impact the storyline as she progresses through the game and it is critical that there is a very gradual ramp in difficulty as the game progresses.

While I was convinced of, and extremely excited about, the whole game concept, I have to admit it was a little daunting to think of the challenges ahead at this early stage of the project. It wasn't like anything we had done before nor was it like any of the games that typically grace the Top 10 charts in the casual games industry.

To make matters worse, there was no data to tell us what the market appetite for a game like this would be. How would we ever bring this to market? With these challenges stacked against us, we really thought our big game idea was simply a pipe dream.

The Dream Team

Over the course of 2005, I shared the game idea with two potential partners, but it didn't go anywhere. Keeping the challenges in mind, I moved onto other projects, but kept dreaming of the day when the right opportunity would come along.

I'd heard of the publishing model in casual games, but I didn't really consider it until I was faced with a critical decision; Kat Games could spend and risk everything we had to try and get Dream off the ground, or we could look for a publishing partner to help. I had to come to grips with the fact that my goal as a developer was to "make games," but that there's so much more to be done to "make money" from games.

I thought hard about who my partners should be; it had to be a publisher who could provide me with the creative input and non-development support. I also needed a partner whom I trusted and had a track record of successfully navigating the casual games market.

I first met PlayFirst's Creative Director Kenny Dinkin and Director of Publishing Craig Bocks at Casual Connect Amsterdam in 2006. I was impressed by their dedication to creativity and innovation and could immediately sense that they shared my vision to make this unique game a reality. We eventually signed an agreement to partner on what came to be known in June 2007 as Dream Chronicles.

Through the process of development the team at Kat Games, including Pablo Vietto, David González, Miguel Angel Liñan and myself, worked closely with the PlayFirst team. Specifically Michelle Woods, Kenny Shea Dinkin, Craig Bocks and PlayFirst's supporting teams of QA, marketing and sales made us feel like true partners from day one.


What Went Right

1. Shared Vision and Respect for the Concept

I felt really lucky that from the day I unveiled the prototype demo in Amsterdam until the day the game launched, PlayFirst clearly respected my vision for Dream Chronicles.

We both agreed that we were going to create a new kind of game for the casual game market. We were going to take a proven traditional video game genre, but design it to be accessible and friendly to everyone.

It would be a new adventure style casual game -- one that used simple and intuitive mouse control, included a compelling and powerful "hook" from the first moment of game play, and one that included a smooth level ramp of difficulty with no offensive content or theme.

daughter.jpg

2. Strong Initial Prototype -- "vertical slice" to showcase idea

I received feedback from PlayFirst that our prototype went a long way in showcasing our ability to make a product like Dream Chronicles a reality. Beyond the obvious advantage that the prototype showed the strong visual direction that we desired for the project, the two-scene prototype also allowed the stakeholders to visualize what the finished product could be. Our prototype presented a "vertical slice" of the product, with very polished art and gameplay but for only a small number of scenes.

When I put it together I envisioned my future publisher saying something like, "Wow, so it will be just like this, but with more scenes?" And in the end, I am glad that we decided to it this way as I also knew that this type of game was not easily understood by some in the casual games industry.

While the art direction was clearly highlighted in the prototype, we also focused on showcasing other elements of the game. From our earliest set of goals, we had wanted to make certain that there was a "hook" from the first moment of gameplay. We inserted the text "I had a dream..." in white text on a black screen to immediately bring users into our story world.

We also took care in the first scene to build a "tutorial level," where the basic mechanics of using the mouse to find objects in the scene, then collecting objects in the inventory that can then be used to change the state of the scene were learned. When a player left that first scene our goal was to have taught them the majority of the "rules" for Dream Chronicles.

3. Collaboration and Clear Roles/Responsibilities

Prior to Dream Chronicles, I had simply created games and presented them directly to the major distributors in the space -- Real Arcade, Yahoo, Oberon, etc. In 2005, the word "publisher" was just starting to make its way into the language of the casual games industry.

I checked out a few publishers and heard that PlayFirst called itself a "full service publisher." I was skeptical because at the time, casual games were being distributed, not really "published." But as I got to know the company PlayFirst reminded me of my experiences in the 1990's making games for established publishers Eidos, Universal and others, with my previous development company.

What I found PlayFirst meant in being a "full service publisher" was really a partner who aimed to collaborate and contribute in their specific areas of expertise. Kat Games is a very talented development studio, but we are only four people.

PlayFirst was our design and development partner, plus they provided support in areas that we weren't experts at such as marketing, testing, distribution and support -- all responsibilities that are challenging but also time consuming when publishing a game alone. For me, this was the welcome part of this project -- it freed my team to focus on what we enjoyed most -- developing a great game.

It was a true partnership where the two teams understood what each could bring to the table.


4. Feedback & User Testing Was Always Valuable and Considered

Even though there was never any question that Kat Games was the game's developer, there was a high level of creative collaboration on the project. When I needed feedback on a design idea or wanted to conduct a brainstorm to resolve a design challenge, the PlayFirst team was there to help with candidness and creativity.

Feedback came from many people in different forms, from game design, production or testing. Whenever there was a need to discuss the final solution, it was always clear that we, Kat Games, were the "author" of the game and our voices were given proper weight.

In addition, because we wanted more consumer feedback, PlayFirst commissioned a round of third party usability tests around alpha and invited the Kat Games team to attend the sessions. We've never had the resources to do this, but these sessions yielded feedback that was invaluable to the creation of the final game.

Seeing players experience the game that you are building for the first time was an eye-opening experience. Prior to this, we could only imagine and guess what first-time user reactions would be. Our attempts yielded nothing like the real thing.

The major learnings we got from the experience helped us with a several things. Among them, we were able to better adapt the learning ramp during the first scene. Since we did not have an official tutorial level, it was critical that the first scene accomplished the duty of teaching the player how to play the game while immersing them into the storyline at the same time.

We also learned how people reacted to gameplay elements, such as using the inventory or advancing levels, and smoothed out the areas where it was too difficult for the player to understand. In addition, user testing helped us gauge players' immersion level in the storyline and we were able to adjust and deepen it where necessary.

5. Iterative Design Process (part one)

We knew that an adventure game like Dream Chronicles was going to be unique for our team and unique for the casual games industry. In a world where swapping colored gems in a match 3 game, or juggling tasks in a time management game is the norm, the iterative nature of a story-based game like Dream Chronicles was going to require a much higher degree of flexibility throughout the game's design and development process. Each new scene involved unique graphics, puzzles, and story elements, so we knew that it wouldn't all be "figured out" up front.

I prefer to work more iteratively and put pieces together to try things out as we go along. PlayFirst's willingness to accept this fact was something that I appreciated in terms of my work style. Not only being able to work this way, but to also be supported in doing it was a great advantage for my team. We truly were able to "dream" as we went along.

There were some things that we discovered while developing the game in this way and the fact that we were able to be flexible and adapt to the needs of the project mid-stream made for a better game in the end.

jewelbook.jpg

For example, the collectible dream jewels were not included in the original prototype, but deemed essential soon thereafter, as a way to tie the gameplay and story to the larger metastructure of the game.

We also iterated at various times on the amount of "hints" that would be provided to the player in the game, trying to balance the need to let players explore the scene and look for clues, while not frustrating them to the point that they would quit the game. In the end, the iterative process that we agreed to up front paid dividends as we figured out how to solve some of the product's biggest design challenges.


What Went Wrong

1. Selection of Partners is Critical -- A Mixed Success

Dream Chronicles was unlike the eight other games that we had made at Kat Games. Where we previously had been able to handle all of the development tasks required to complete a project, we knew from our early brainstorming on Dream Chronicles that one of the major challenges we would face would be appropriately resourcing the project. It was simply more than our four person team would be able to manage.

As we hadn't previously needed to rely on external partners to create our games, we initiated conversations with outside teams once we had signed our agreement with PlayFirst. The most direct area of impact to the overall cost and schedule of our game was the art production, where we had a difficult time keeping the project on track from a quality, budget, and schedule perspective.

In the end, we "touched up" many of the scenes that were received from our external partner and that required more time than we had originally planned. This wasn't all bad, as we learned a lot about the process of working with external teams and have been able to use the lessons we learned in Dream Chronicles in subsequent projects.

Other areas of the project required third party partners as well and we again learned a great deal about the process of collaborating with multiple teams to create a unique and innovative type of product. All of the audio was produced in collaboration with a third party audio production company, a script writer was hired to author the story and text in the game, and a freelance Flash resource contributed to the cinematics.

All in all, we had a challenging but rewarding experience here, but it definitely is one of the areas that we will take into consideration as we work on future projects.

2. Iterative Design Process (part two)

dollhouse.jpgThis point is so prominent in any discussion of Dream Chronicles that it deserves billing in both the good and the bad of the postmortem discussion. While I appreciate the iterative design process that we experienced while making Dream Chronicles, it also presented some challenges that are worth noting.

Originally, we did a lot of experimentation because we could spend the time thinking through the game's story, user inputs, and puzzles. Eventually, however, production became strained because of the number of questions that were left unanswered during the up front design phase.

The dream jewels and game diary were not completely integrated into the gameplay until near alpha and work on the story, puzzles, and cinematics (especially for the later levels) was delayed more than we would have liked.

Fortunately, our team had the foresight to build a level editor for the game, which allowed us to make changes during the late stages of the project. Once that level editor was available, any number of issues could be tested and tuned as we finalized the design of specific elements in the game.

Another area in the iterative design where the project had some strain was the script writing and integration. Because English is not our team's native language, the decision to hire a script writer was an easy one that we made with PlayFirst early in the project.

However, we found ourselves in a somewhat clumsy cycle of version control around the script, where the test team was opening bugs during testing of the game before the revised text had been delivered by the writer and integrated into the game! This caused some amount of back and forth with the publisher that we could have avoided with a more streamlined process.

One last area of the design that was impacted with the ongoing iteration was the game's length. Because of the unique nature of an adventure game, it was difficult to quantify the amount of time that the end user was going to spend on any given scene and in turn on the entire game.

We experimented with different techniques (including the beta testing metrics implemented with PlayFirst's proprietary game engine) to try and make the best guess at the average amount of time consumers would spend on the game, but ultimately we wished that we could have increased the length of the game by some reasonable number of additional screens.

3. Technical Challenges

New to us for Dream Chronicles was the fact that we would be developing the game with PlayFirst's development platform Playground SDK. We saw several advantages in using the platform, most importantly that it allowed us to release a Mac version of the product, which we had not done with our previous games.

However, we hadn't planned up front to use a new technology to build Dream Chronicles and we had to take some time up front to learn how to us the framework. It took some getting used to, but in the end we really liked it. The documentation and support that we received from the Playground SDK team was very strong and all the requests we made were either fixed in an interim release of the technology or received attention through direct response from the engineers.

Next, because our vision was to create a new game genre showcasing a unique Art Nouveau style, we also all wanted to include some fresh cinematic sequences in Dream Chronicles. From the game design and art standpoint, these sequences allowed us to round out the story world that we were creating.

From the technical standpoint we utilized Flash as the method of delivery and ran into some issues around integration of the cinematic sequences with the game engine. In the end, with a little extra coordination around the settings being used by the creator of the cinematics, our implementation team, and knowledge about what the engine required, we were able to work through this issue. But, it was something to include on the list of things that we would improve on subsequent projects.


4. Polish on Story Arc and Delivery

While it sounds strange to say that a game, which from the beginning was based upon a story world, did not have as much time for polish on the story as we would like, this is in fact the truth. Some parts of the story evolved in my mind as time went by, or I found that as the team moved forward into the tactical aspects of the project more clarity was required on the story than I had originally accounted for.

Again, we did focus on the story, but I think that in hindsight we wished that we would have spent some more time on how players experienced the "end." We focused a lot on raising the bar at the beginning and drawing the players into the story, but we didn't achieve as much "punch" as we would have liked to for the game's conclusion.

Additionally, despite our efforts to design an appealing set of characters in both our mortal and fairy worlds, we found that the emotional connection did not completely match our expectation. We relied on the cinematics to propel the story forward and on the diary and dream jewels to provide a mechanism for players to uncover more information about the characters and backstory of Dream Chronicles world, but some of the feedback that we've received is that the delivery was too subtle.

This is an area that we took immediately as a major focus for Dream Chronicles 2: The Eternal Maze and from early indications is an area where we have improved dramatically.

5. Letting Go of the Final Marketing Was Tough

Dream Chronicles was the passionate "dream" of many people, and it was tough to see it through some of the creative challenges required to bring it to market. We struggled at times to gain consensus among the various internal and external teams on a number of non-game related issues.

Originally the game had been called simply Dream, which we loved because of the many ways that such a name could be interpreted. To my team at Kat Games it was a single, powerful word that signified what the game represented to us. Along with PlayFirst, we brainstormed a number of different ways to develop a name that could be protected, hint at a full series of adventure products, and continue to evoke the "feeling" we had intended with the original name.

level2.jpg

There was also a challenge that we faced around how to best represent the game in the marketing collateral used to sell it in the online space. As a downloadable game, there were different opinions about how to best translate the beautiful Art Nouveau style from the game into clear and legible assets that would "pop" on the virtual shelf.

Ultimately, we trusted the points that our publishing partner made in this area and went with their recommendations. After many collaborative sessions with PlayFirst, we also chose the final title, Dream Chronicles.

Conclusion

In the end, we discovered that Dream Chronicles resonated with the casual games audience and helped achieve its status as a notable casual game -- and now, a franchise.

There were a few key lessons I took away from this project. First of all, be sure and find a publisher you trust and who shares your vision. Secondly, if you want to do something truly innovative, plan for unexpected costs and longer timelines (you'll need it as you learn what works).

Lastly, rely on your gut instinct on what you think works, rely on others who can provide support and expertise, but ultimately keep the "dream" alive to make your once-in-a-lifetime project a reality. It won't be easy, but it can be worth it!

Game Data

Total development staff: Four (Kat Games), Two outsourcing companies

Length of development: 12 months, including 4 months for prototype

Development hardware: PC 2.2 core DUO, 2 GB RAM, 240 GB HD, 256 MB graphics card

Development software: Visual C++ Photoshop 3D MAX, Flash

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