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Sci-Fi Heroes Writing Post-Mortem

A post-mortem of writing the iOS game Sci-fi Heroes.

Originally posted on

Last Friday I was informed that the studio for which I've been working for the last year, Majesco Boston, was going to be shut down.  I'm deeply saddened by this for obvious reasons, not least of which is that I now lack a full-time job, but second to that comes the unscratched itch that comes with leaving projects unfinished.

Most of what I was working on I can't talk about, but I'll mention one in particular.  Sci-Fi Heroes is a game for iOS that I can say I slaved over as close to literally as possible without going over.  It was originally released during the first week of November, 2012, to mixed reviews.  The negatives we can save for another day - there were some obvious flaws relating to performance and some inadvertent UI mistakes that led people to believe we were greedier than we were.  (All things, by the way, that were being fixed in an update slated to be submitted extremely soon.  No idea if it will still be updated, but I hope so.)

What thrilled me most about people's reaction to the game was how much they enjoyed the humor.  When I first came on board, the design for the game was serious - very sci-fi military with some retro sci-fi characters.  I really don't know why this seemed so imperative to me, but I insisted that this game needed to be funny.  Maybe it was all the Red Dwarf I had been watching during my previous job search window, or some latent desire to get back to my Adult Swim roots but I imagined the game almost as an office comedy rather than a war epic.

I started writing interstitial videos introducing each character, inspired by Valve's "Meet the X" promo videos for TEAM FORTRESS 2.  (All hilarious, if you haven't seen them.) I also started an intro video laying out the extremely bare-bones plot. (Aliens invade.  Good guys fight 'em off.  Yay!  It didn't need to be complex, just a backdrop for the office comedy, the same way in which "the Office" is about a documentary about a paper company, but that's not at all important.)  In writing all of these, I kept finding myself writing with the voice of Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw in my head.  (The host of ZERO PUNCTUATION.  Also hilarious.  Trust me.)  I resolved to find a voice actor who could pull off that same dry, British machine gun delivery, but in the end I thought... hey, maybe we can just get Yahtzee!

After I managed to contact him (which I did like a raving idiot, leaving comments on his blog and other such indelicate methods) and he agreed to do it, we recorded the sessions.  I actually had a completely different opening written, but it really wasn't working the way I meant it to. 

Yahtzee was too polite to say so, but he agreed when I mentioned my concerns. So I rewrote it to be less clunky - I was trying too hard to be funny by stringing long complicated sentences together that, if you parsed them right, would equal a soft chuckle at best.

Original Sci-Fi Heroes Opening Intro (should be very fast and tight) An info-graphic style representation of four planets in orbit.  Initially they’re green with the Alliance symbol, but quickly a dotted line bounces from one to the other, filling the planet with red and marking it with the Empire symbol.


In the days after the Calimar space horde conquered the last civilized planet in the solar system, things were understandably a little tense.  Those who could afford rockets evacuated.

Icons of green rocket ships blasting off from a conquered planet.


Those who couldn’t either stayed and became die-hard fans of tyrannical dictatorships or found creative ways to liberate the aforementioned rockets from their affluent owners. Icons of pipes and an unfolding kind of Swiss-army wrench, with dotted lines coming from them, like schematics or diagrams.  The pipe icon hits a stick-figure man in the head.


Usually with a pipe or some sort of wrench-thing.  All of which meant that four days after the conquest, every ship within a thousand light-years was heading away from the New Calimar Empire as fast as the laws of physics would allow.

Icons of rockets all speeding away from a planet on the right, going left.


Except for one.

A swerving representation of the Aphelion moves from left to right, causing the other ships to swerve and crash in to each other.   Zoom in to see the normally animated version of the Aphelion, then zoom in again through the hull to see the Aphelion crew standing in a line, idle, each doing some animation in character (spinning a gun, petting a tiger, etc).


It’s been said the crew of the dropship carrier Aphelion are the best special forces team in the galaxy.  Usually by the crew of the dropship carrier Aphelion.  The thing is… they could be right.

The characters all adopt a battle stance, spinning swords, cocking rifles, etc.  Then a moth-like creature flies by over their heads and Sarge opens fire wildly, laughing crazy.  The others duck and cover.  Soon he stops, looks at the others and shrugs, grinning.


It doesn’t mean they’re not a little unhinged.

The crew picks themselves up and stand tight together. The camera zooms out.


I mean, one dropship crew against an entire army spanning the whole solar system?  That’s crazy, right?

The camera finishes zooming out.  The logo is hanging over their heads: Sci-Fi Heroes!



Yeah, too complicated and honestly the visuals were too reminiscent of Yahtzee's own Zero Punctuation style.  So instead I centered the action around Sarge, arguably the goofiest and most iconic character in the game.  You can see the results here:  INTRO VIDEO

Yahtzee was great to work with, and always turned around everything I needed very quickly.  (he's in Australia, I'm in Boston.)  He also added his own take on a couple of lines which made the whole thing flow much better.  In hindsight, it might have been better to hire Yahtzee to actually write his own lines -- I'm happy with how it turned out, but I think we might have ended up a bit tighter and maybe a little more biting had I given him free reign.  He's never given me his opinion on the game, but I'm hoping he liked it enough to never review it.

Aside from the intros and character introductions, there was scene-by-scene story to write, which I actually found fairly challenging.  The purpose of having a story in a game like this is to hopefully a) entertain and b) make the player want to continue playing to see the end.  I had a lot of limitations in that regard - I couldn't do scripted events or animations.  There were no sweeping story lines planned out early on, so all I had to use were the character dialogue panels at the beginning of each level.  I could have also put some at the end, but there was so much going on at the end of each level, with rewards given out with victory and advice given out with defeat, that it seemed like too much.

I limited myself to four panels a level only, which was a challenge in brevity.  As any writer knows, it's a constant temptation to write War and Peace any time you step up to the keyboard, but this restriction forced me to write in short, digestible chunks.  Setting up jokes in only four exchanges is actually a lot harder than you'd think - the entire process actually took me about a month in constant revision, usually working late at night (to concentrate, and well, because that's how much work I had going on at the time.)

One thing I really loved that will likely be removed in the update (for performance reasons) was that every time a character intro was shown, the other crewmates used the opportunity to rag on the featured character.  In games you don't often get the chance to break the fourth wall elegantly and I had a lot of fun with that.

If I had it to do over again, I think I would have spent more time on the dialogue panels.  Had the headshots animate like they were talking, showing emotions, things like that.  I think that would added some empathic kick to it.  But all in all, it's one of the games I'm most proud of.  Check it out below!


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