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Interview: Digital Media Workshop's team members chat about Prominence

The point-and-click PC adventure game is considered by many to be a niche market but the genre still has a loyal following. Later this year a new sci-fi themed adventure game called Prominence is scheduled to be released from a company called Digital Media Workshop. Its a multimedia company based in New York State that's been around for a while but is only now getting into game development.

Big Download got the low down on Prominence with a new interview with two of the game's team members; Mike Morrison, the co-designer, audio and art lead of the game and Kevin McGrath, another co-designer and the game's programming lead.

First can you give us a bit of background surrounding Digital Media Workshop?


Mike Morrison: We're a multimedia production company specializing in audio production, print and web design, 3D, and video production. We've been in business for over 13 years, mostly working with indie musicians, mid-sized corporations, and small businesses. Prominence is our first game title.

Why did the company wish to go into game development?

Mike Morrison: Originally, it was to promote the studio to a new market. The goal was to produce something that would showcase the studio's capabilities in music, sound effects, 3D visuals, and possibly video – essentially all the various services we offered, but wrapped up in a singular form. I've been a gamer since the early '80s, and it was always in the back of my mind to try game development. We even got hired to do a few bits of game art and audio here and there.

For this new project, of course it would have been great to make some kind of deep, immersive, story-based game, but we didn't have millions of dollars or a huge team, so the idea was shelved initially.Then, sometime in late 2005, I stumbled across the demo for the point-and-click adventure, Scratches. I couldn't believe that what I was seeing was created by just two people. That pretty much changed everything.

I phoned my good friend Kevin McGrath, since he's a programmer, and sent him some of my notes about the basic sci-fi story, setting, and ideas for the game and then asked if he'd be interested in helping out on the code side of things. He jumped at the chance, and brought all kinds of exciting ideas along that have really helped take things to the next level.
It soon became clear that this would be way more than a simple demo project. We had the makings of a full game experience and there was no stopping it; we had to go the distance.

How did the idea for Prominence come about?

Mike Morrison: Prominence was inspired by an amalgam of films and stories, really. Part of the inspiration also came – believe it or not – from looking at some of the limitations of the adventure genre. We worked hard to create a story and setting that embrace those limitations in ways that make sense within the game world. For example, we've tried to structure it so that the hero and the player learn at the same rate as the adventure unfolds. There is never a time where the hero knows more about the situation than the player.

However, Prominence is not an "amnesia game". While the player will have to discover who they are and learn their place in the story, this only serves to introduce players to the story as opposed to -being- the story.Similarly, we've tried to address common concerns about this kind of game by offering a field of view that minimizes fishbowl-type effects. And players aren't likely to get lost when moving from one location to another, because we include transition animations between nodes, so that players truly move through the space. We also tried to take a unique approach to delivering many of the audio clues, although I can't say much about that without spoiling things.

There haven't been very many sci-fi adventure games in recent years, and we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to try to create something special to fill the gap.

What can you tell us about the back story for the game?


Mike Morrison: The Letarri are a race of people who all but lost their home world when it was annexed by a massive, warmongering interstellar empire. Rather than be ruled by a militant regime, many Letarri fled and became refugees. Scattered but determined, they launch probes deep into uncharted space and eventually find a far-off uninhabited world that shows promise. They dub it New Letarr and plan a coordinated mission to colonize it.

First, they launch a single large vessel with a core crew that will fly to New Letarr. Once it arrives, it acts as an orbital factory, building the basic infrastructure to support the incoming colonists. Six months later, the massive cargo ships bringing millions of Letarri to their new home will arrive.But something has happened and the mission is now in jeopardy. It's up to the player to figure out what happened, where the mission has derailed, and what (if anything) can be done to save it.

What can you tell us about the gameplay for Prominence? Is it a mix of adventure and action or is it primarily puzzle solving?

Mike Morrison: Prominence is a point-and-click style adventure, with 360-degree panoramic views at every location in the game. The main gameplay focuses on exploration, uncovering clues, and solving a variety of inventory, environmental and interactive puzzles on the way to discovering what happened during the mission.

Kevin McGrath: The puzzles are a combination of both inventory and GUI puzzles that challenge the player and are tied directly to both story and gameplay. None of the puzzles involve timed sequences or require the reflexes of a cheetah to complete. Our goal is to challenge your mind while providing a compelling narrative.
What kind of an art style are you aiming for in the game?

Mike Morrison: It's a sparse, almost minimalist style. I found the visual stylings of films like 2001, Solaris, Moon, and even Apollo 13 to be inspiring and that's probably reflected in some of the look. And those are all films that are a bit like our game – very human stories set against a backdrop of science-fiction.

We have had several people comment on how refreshing the environments look. In the context of the story, it wouldn't make much sense for most of the environments to be rusted out or bathed in grunge and neglect. Also, it's an extension of the story and characters. Sure, they're Letarri, but the tone is basically that they're real people in real danger. We wanted the humanity of the story to ring through, not to be buried in layers of melodrama. And we've tried to echo that in the visuals.

What other features do you think are important in Prominence?

Kevin McGrath: From a technical standpoint, we've strived to make the game playable on a large spectrum of PCs, including low-end machines and computers with integrated graphics. Prominence also offers native widescreen support and the engine is coded to handle a multitude of screen resolutions.We've also provided some quality of life features. We wanted to make the save system particularly user-friendly. Many adventure games provide only a handful of save game slots with little in the way of explaining where you were and what you were doing. In Prominence, we incorporated a save system with a large number of slots, each of which stores a screenshot image of where you were and lets you type in a short comment.

Mike Morrison: We're very happy about the skills and abilities that the player gains as they progress through the game. We really wanted to find a way to connect the player character's narrative arc with the gameplay, and once we found a way to do it, it really elevated the game experience. Also, we recognize that voice-overs are a sensitive point with adventure gamers and we really wanted to get it right. So we pored over nearly a thousand demo reels and dozens of custom auditions to find the ideal actor for each role, and then worked closely with each of them during the recording sessions to get the very best results that we could achieve.

What graphics engine are you using for the game and what are its features?

Kevin McGrath: Originally, Prominence was being built in Nucleosys' SCream engine developed by Agustín Cordes, which powered the game Scratches. He had asked us to help add features to the engine under a GPL/limited open source license, and we were glad to help. Ultimately though, we realized that we were bolting on all sorts of functionality that wasn't available, like animated and texture hotspots, compressed texture support, dynamic menu and inventory systems, and higher resolution textures to name a few. I was having to recode large portions of the initial engine's modules from scratch. It soon became clear to all of us that we pretty much had to "roll our own" to get the features and systems that we needed to help make our respective adventures reality.

Working on SCream with Agustín was a great experience and very helpful, but in the end, the engine proved too limiting for our project. So we each went off to kind of build our own engines. But to this day, we've kept in close contact with Agustín, sharing code and exchanging information whenever we can to help each other out.

Any plans to release a demo for the game prior to the release of the full version?

Kevin McGrath: Absolutely. We have always felt that it's important for people to try out a demo to see if a game is really for them. So, for us, a demo is a "must" for Prominence.

Mike Morrison: The tricky thing is that if the demo takes place at the beginning of the story (which is the logical starting point), the gameplay will only represent a fraction of what the player can do and experience compared with the later acts of the game. But if the demo is taken from a later part of the story, there's considerable risk that the gameplay and puzzles will be out of context because the player hasn't played through everything. So it will be an interesting challenge to try and pick the optimal slice of gameplay to accurately represent Prominence as a whole.

Assuming your game is successful what plans does the team have for future games?

Mike Morrison: We've got a list of more than a dozen projects that we think would be fun to make and fun to play. Some are adventures, and some are other types of games. I really hope Prominence does well, because developing games is way too much fun and we've got some really exciting ideas and stories that we'd like to share with gamers.

Kevin McGrath: In addition, if Prominence does very well, we may consider making a sequel for it. There is room to further the story along after the game's close and the Letarri people and culture are still ripe for further exploration.

Finally is there anything else you wish to say about Prominence?

Mike Morrison: We expect Prominence to release in 2011, hopefully in both retail box and digital download versions, and also plan to localize the game into several other languages besides English. We'll certainly announce more information about that as it becomes available.

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