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Exclusive: Behind The Scenes of Penny Arcade Adventures

The latest issue of Game Developer has a creator-written postmortem of Hothead's Penny Arcade Adventures, and Gamasutra has exclusive excerpts, revealing how they dealt with scope issues, concentrated on hitting milestones with no publisher,

August 12, 2008

6 Min Read

Author: by Staff

The latest issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine includes a creator-written postmortem on the making of Hothead's Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness -- Episode One, the company's first foray into downloadable episodic games. These extracts reveal how the recently-formed company faced development obstacles on a project of smaller scale than those to which its members were accustomed, due to the episodic nature and development experience of the Penny Arcade license holders, as well as how those obstacles were overcome through experience, outsourcing, and studio independence. Hothead COO Joel DeYoung crafted the postmortem, which was introduced in Game Developer as follows: "Hothead has brought both downloadable episodic games to both PC and console with this Penny Arcade partnership, and along the way learned some valuable lessons, from the difficulty of working with fresh licensors to the trouble with and benefits of outsourcing. A sidebar from Jerry 'Tycho' Holkins and cover art from Mike 'Gabe' Krahulik round out the piece." Mike And Jerry's First Game Early in the postmortem, DeYoung noted the benefits of working with Penny Arcade's Holkins and Krahulik, part of which stemmed from the duo's willingness to contribute a significant amount of artwork and dialogue. But being new to the development process also meant they did not always know what to expect: "Apart from coming to terms with the sheer amount of work they had to do, probably the biggest shock for the Penny Arcade guys was seeing a game that was half finished. "As developers, we took for granted that we could look at the game when it was midway through production and envision where it would end up as additional layers of polish were added. For them, it was much more of a shock to see their characters and world in a half-finished state. We needed to be more diligent in helping them understand what was still first-pass, and how we were going to make it complete. "The game length problems were exacerbated by their lack of experience as well. Story and dialogue are the key factors that determine the length of an episode, and those items came directly from Penny Arcade. "Since virtually no one at Hothead had worked on adventure games before, it was like the blind leading the blind with no one having intuition about how the current story translated into game length. This was one of the factors that led us to work with LucasArts adventure game veteran Ron Gilbert. "A final issue was managing who was in charge of certain decisions. As we progressed, it became clear that the dividing line between their responsibilities and Hothead's was blurry. "For example, the nonlinear dialogue trees in the game are all script: Jerry wrote every word. But finding your way through the dialogue is gameplay, and the type of information that gets revealed, reiterated, or emphasized during each dialogue encounter is key to making a solid adventure game and to ensuring that the player is always aware of what she or he needs to be doing." Managing Scope Moving on, DeYoung commented on a problem that frequently afflicts developers moving from the traditional full-length retail game segment to smaller, downloadable games: that of scope. He described the issue: "Old habits die hard. We started Hothead on the principle of making smaller games, experiences that could be digested in a reasonable amount of time. The episodic format is a great way to achieve this, so we planned the game series' story arc appropriately and scoped each episode to have several hours of gameplay. "And yet, numerous times during the project, we noticed the scope creeping larger, as the team fell into old habits we all had from making larger games destined for retail. "At one point, the issue grew to such an extent that we had to step back and rethink how big we were making the game. We realized we were setting a trend with the first episode that we would need to maintain with future releases. These adjustments were not easy to make and cost us extra time. "As a large portion of the team rolled onto the second installment, I started hearing discussions on the team that made it clear we were thinking about Episode Two as a sequel rather than an installment of a series. With episodic delivery, it is imperative to think of each release as an iteration on story and content using a static engine. This principle is important when we plan to deliver new episodes every four months and perhaps even essential if we consider the episode-per-month schedule adopted by Telltale Games on its Sam & Max series. "Looking ahead, we will have to ask ourselves if we are sticking to those practices or if we are sliding back into older, more familiar habits that will prevent us from reaching our goals." A New Development Model As far as what went smoothly, DeYoung pointed to the company's early decision to stay independent, with faster game releases and direct distribution models like Steam and Xbox Live Arcade providing the necessary revenue stream to do so. As he noted, the decision had positive repercussions for creativity as well as income: "Focusing our company on selling games online and funding the games ourselves meant that we could remain independent of publishers. This created a genuine indie feel on the team throughout production. Team members felt empowered to make the kind of game we wanted, which gave everyone an extra sense of ownership and motivation to make a great game. "This model was a big change for everyone at Hothead, with virtually all our veteran staff coming from work-for-hire developers. The change in dynamic was most evident because we were no longer shipping off monthly milestones to a publisher. "Despite the appeal of this, we realized midway that monthly milestones provide a convenient pressure to keep a project on track. We had to come up with other ways to motivate ourselves to hit interim milestones -- a surprisingly difficult task when they are not tied directly to revenue. "Despite that, it was a refreshing change to be able to make a game from beginning to end, answering only to ourselves." Additional Info The full postmortem, including a great deal more insight into Penny Arcade Adventures: On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness -- Episode One's development, with "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" reasoning, is now available in the August 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine. The issue also includes an analytical study of FPS shooting mechanics, an examination of the AI middleware market, and an interview with former Sonic Team and Naughty Dog designer Hirokazu Yasuhara (Sonic the Hedgehog, Uncharted: Drake's Legacy) - plus tool reviews, special career sections, and columns from Bungie's Steve Theodore, Lucasarts' Jesse Harlin, and BioWare's Damion Schubert. Yearly print and digital subscriptions to Game Developer are now available, and all digital subscriptions now include web-browsable and downloadable PDF versions of the magazine back to May 2004, as well as the digital version of the Game Career Guide special issue. In addition, the June/July 2008 issue of Game Developer is available in paid single-issue digital form (viewable in a web browser, and with an associated downloadable PDF).

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