I had the opportunity to pin down Game Maker genius Srehpog and pick his brain about Ark 22, the universe, and everything, and so I did (sorry about those bruises, Sreh... and I promise to comply with that restraining order...). Please take a moment to read what he had to say. It's very interesting. And informative. No, really, just read it.
It should be called Ark 22, as that's the unofficial name of the ship involved at the beginning, but I must confess to adding to the problem by often omitting the space myself, out of laziness. Sorry, everyone.
On a more serious note, I've heard it took three years to complete the game - why did it require such a long period of time in development?
The main reason would, unsurprisingly, be its size. Generally, unlike some other genres, action-adventure games can't be developed by simply adding a new 'difficulty' variable or increasing the number of enemies - the story, events and locations need to be sufficiently different as the game progresses, and each of these needs to be separately created. There's also the effort involved in having such a story in the first place; a plot, a context; it adds a whole lot of stuff to be done for the game to make sense. There's a reason why epic RPGs typically span several disks of whatever medium they're running on as opposed to puzzle or beat-em-up games. Combine that with the fact that in this case there was only one person working on the whole thing - code, graphics, design, everything but the music - and the fact that he had to fit it all into free time which wasn't taken up by the so-called necessities of 'real life', and you've got one seriously long development time, especially for a Game Maker game.
Speaking of which, Game Maker has received some criticism in the freeware game making community as to it's "validity" as a game production tool. What were your experiences with the engine, and what compliments/criticisms would you have for it?
Game Maker 5 (the version Ark 22 is written in), while being an excellent production tool, isn't particularly well-suited to games of this length or scope, which is probably the reason why so few Game Maker users embark on such a project. Those who discount its validity, as you say, are probably doing so on the grounds that aspects of game creation such as resource handling and memory are 'done for you' by the engine, and that in general the coding is simpler. This is true, but then there's a difference between which 'side' of a game you're considering. Game Maker is usually described as a design tool, and that's exactly the point - it allows users to craft the player-visible 'front-end' of a game without having to worry about the behind-the-scenes work too much. Many of the other aspects of the creative process remain surprisingly similar to games being written 'from scratch' - if you want pretty graphics, booming sound effects and the like, you still have to make them. Coding, again, benefits from a vast amount of inbuilt functions and a shamelessly forgiving compiler, but this affects only the code's implementation. There's still the usual work involved in deciding what to use and where - these aren't aspects any amount of tool support is going to do automatically.
Moving on from the technical stuff (apologies to my fellow geeks)... Ark 22 has been compared to Zelda: A Link to the Past, and has even been referred to occasionally as a LttP fangame, though it has absolutely no roots in the Zelda series, story-wise. Do you feel this is a fair comparison, and why/why not?
As an actual description I'd say it's completely inaccurate, for the reason you've pointed out - for something to be a Zelda fangame it has to actually be a Zelda game. However, as a comparison alone it's quite correct - the gameplay works almost identically to LttP, and doesn't look too dissimilar either, although there aren't any edited sprites or other graphics in there. I'd say the story and general context are probably the only aspects for which Ark has no roots in the Zelda series. Nonetheless, it's not a fangame. Not any more, anyway.
So how much influence did LttP actually have on your development of the game?
In the very beginning, Ark 22 was a Zelda fangame. I'd started working with RPGMaker 2000 a few months before I heard about Game Maker, but in the end found that too limited. What it did do, though, was show me that the creation of original games was at least to some extent in the hands of mere mortals like me, as opposed to only commercially-funded teams of elite programmers or child geniuses with a whole pile of time on their hands. Eventually I came across a forum dedicated to Zelda fangaming, and seeing some of the examples they had, as well as the obvious potential for support, started working on one with downloaded LttP sprites and tiles. I don't know why, but a few days in I decided I didn't want to use someone else's graphics and story, so I started making my own. I imagine I probably didn't realise just how much work that was going to involve at the time, or I'd have stopped quite quickly. By the time I realised just how much of my life the game was going to consume, it was far too late to turn back. Three years later...
Where did you come up with the idea for the story?
I made most of it up as I went along, in the early stages at least. It took until somewhere near the beginning of the fourth dungeon for everything to finally fall into place. A few months into the game's development I saw a ferry (the Superfast which leaves from Zeebrugge in Belgium, if you're interested) called 'Piraeus', and decided I needed to use that name in Ark 22, so I did. Then Athens stole it from me, but that's another story. Piraeus and his relationship with the player character is probably the one aspect of the story which changed the most throughout the production period. As for the events themselves, it's pretty standard that if a game or film starts aboard some sort of ship it's got to crash, I guess? The rest was all built up as the game progressed and I got a clearer idea of what I wanted to do with it.
You've used hand-drawn art as a feature in the game's cutscenes. Why did you choose to use actual sketches instead of digitally recreating them in a more "typical" style?
To be honest it's mainly because I couldn't. There are some 'live' cutscenes in the game which use the normal view and sprites, but at the time I didn't have the expertise with working with images larger than sprite-size to pull 'cinematic' cutscenes off properly, so I just drew them by hand and filled in some simple greyscale shades later. If I were doing that today I would definitely add more detail to the pictures in the first place so they didn't need any editing, but I guess at the time I had more interesting parts of the game to be getting on with. A lot of players seem to quite enjoy the hand-drawn element, which is always good to hear, but it was never a design decision to that extent. If I were ever come back to the game for whatever reason, the cutscenes would definitely be first on the list of changes. Maybe one day...
Some of the dungeon puzzles were absolutely evil. Which of the dungeons was your favorite to create, and why? Your least favorite (and why)?
Muahaha. Sorry. The most fun to create was definitely the fourth dungeon, despite the two hours of feverish sketch-stop-start-again required to get the basic floor plan to work. The idea of the whole dungeon being one big puzzle with the two lines of 'power' you could switch on and off greatly appealed to me, partly because it left more rooms free than usual for battles with enemies and a bit of weapon-work, as opposed to walking around tripping switches. For me, that's the balance Ark 22 works best with; more fast-paced fighting than puzzles, which is probably why I regard the generally more puzzle-oriented earlier dungeons as less successful. There's nowhere else I could have gotten away with having two minibosses attacking the player at once, certainly.
My least favourite, in retrospect, is probably the very first dungeon. I don't know if I necessarily enjoyed creating it less, but at that early stage the game lacked direction, most of the plot not being at all decided on until much later. I didn't yet know quite who the enemy was or why the player was supposed to be fighting it, and in those conditions it's hard to build an intelligent, interesting, cohesive dungeon, for obvious reasons. The result is, to me now the whole thing feels a bit like a 'token' dungeon which was put there because it was the right time in the game for a dungeon, rather than because the plot demanded it or there was actually something to do there, story-wise. There's also the fact that until you've completed it you can't access the overworld again, which I imagine might put players off, especially those who get stuck on something inside given the quite linear layout of the rooms and so on. I'd say it's still important to strongly structure the beginning of a game like this, but at the same time it would have been nice to give the player a few more options, especially when at that point in the story they're not really expected to know what's going on yet. Mind you, I still like that boss...
Did you originally plan on implementing multiple endings in the game, or was it one of those things you decided to add in later in the development? For that matter, why did you decide to create multiple endings?
I really can't remember. I might have wanted it from the start (in the same way I might have wanted online multiplayer, a full-orchestral soundtrack and a gold-plated Collectors' Edition, for example), or it might have been last-minute. I don't think Ark was ever going to default straight to a 'happily ever after' ending, so I suppose the original plan might have been to only have the one 'bad' ending at all. Apparently, though, players would rather be rewarded for their efforts, so I made that possible too. Now that you mention it I could have left it out entirely and just told people it was in there - how's that for an easter egg? As it happens, if there ever is a sequel or corollary of any sort to Ark 22, players will wish they'd stuck with the worse ending for sure...
Nobody's found the bonus R-rated ending yet anyway.
What was the most difficult part of the production process for you personally?
The biggest problem with a game like Ark 22 is continually finding the motivation to push forward and come that little bit closer to finishing. It doesn't ever take long for what seemed at the time to be the best idea ever to fade into a long list of seemingly rewardless tasks, especially, I'd imagine, with something more low-level like a raw programming language, let alone with Game Maker. I suppose letting the game evolve as it was being produced was probably the one thing which let it get finished at all - having all your work set out for you from the beginning is, of course, a sensible way of doing things, but for one person alone working on something of this size I think there probably needs to be an element of decision freedom in many aspects of the game for the creative process to remain as new and interesting as it needs to.
More specifically, a lot of the pieces of the game which take place outside the engine itself (things like the save-game system, controls setup and message-box display) took an awful lot more work to get right than simpler in-game objects like NPCs, enemies and the like. I don't now why this is - it might be because they're naturally more complicated, or because they're not making use of a set of objects which are already there to support them, or indeed for any other reason. The most difficult in-game event to create was probably the trigonometric projection governing the second dungeon's tentacle boss's attacks. That's a fancy way of saying he has to be able to attack you in the same way no matter what direction you're in. It required an awful lot of big tables of tentacle positions as multiples of sin(this) and cos(that), and you don't need me to tell you that's not particularly exciting. As it happens, just one of the tentacles on one of its attacks is still completely out of place, but there's no way I'm trawling through all the tables just to find which one it is.
Are you satisfied with the finished game? If you could change anything about it, what would it be?
It could do with rewriting from scratch, really. Ark 22 was my first 'proper' Game Maker game, started with all of about two week's experience, so a lot of the earlier events and objects are terribly badly written, often requiring major maintenance as new features were added which didn't agree with them. I then discovered a new and exciting was of what I thought was simplifying object creation, which turned out to almost double the amount of pressure put on the CPU to even run the game's code at all. By the time I found out about these side-effects it was far, far too late to remove the code causing them. That's why on a lot of machines certain parts of the game run terribly slowly while others are perfectly smooth. Otherwise I'm generally very pleased with the way the game has turned out. It's certainly a lot bigger and better than I thought it would be at the beginning, and from some of the feedback I've received it seems players are enjoying it, so yes, I'm completely satisfied. To know completely that all the bugs had been eliminated would be even better, but I suppose that's the same for everyone.
I know this has absolutely nothing to do with Ark 22, but please enlighten us - what is your fascination with gophers?
You think so? Ark 22's characters actually were gophers for the first couple of months of production, but when I realised the direction the story was taking I thought this probably wasn't the best time to be using them. Honestly? I really don't know - I just like them. I'm certainly glad I made the switch to 'human' characters though - I don't imagine the plot would have had much, if any, appeal if I'd left the gophers in. There'll be plenty of time for that in Umbrella Adventure, anyway...
Umbrella Adventure? Is that the super-secret unique new game project I hear you have in the works? Is there anything you'd like to share with us about it? Please?
Oh, it's not super-secret, it's just that no-one asks. It's called Umbrella Adventure: The Castle of Cake, and centres around a gopher, his umbrella, a very talented but slightly insane unicycling weasel, an emotionally fragile talking fairground hook-headed rubber ducky, and the heinous theft of several hundred very delicious cakes. Before I lose the entire audience I should probably add that the musical score is performed by a friend of mine on acoustic guitar and is superb, and that all the graphics are hand-drawn. I'm also playing with a lot of Game Maker 6's new effects this time, so it should be quite a visual treat. It's every bit as serious as it sounds.
What would be the number one piece of advice you'd give to aspiring game producers, based on your own experience?
I wouldn't really consider myself a game producer - not until someone starts paying me for it, at least - but from my experience with Game Maker I'd say the most important thing is making sure you understand what demands a certain type and/or scale of game is going to make, both on you and the system you're using, especially if you're working alone. I'm glad I did make a game of this size, but I nonetheless recognise that three years is rather a long time to be spending all on one project. I think some of that time in my case could probably have been put to a more practical use elsewhere - learning a 'proper' programming language, for instance.
With Game Maker specifically (and possibly elsewhere, though I only have experience of the GM community as regards this problem), the biggest killer is a lack of long-term motivation. Too many games with potential vanish simply because the creator(s) couldn't be bothered to see it through until the end. That's not necessarily their fault either - in many cases the idea simply isn't as juicy as they first thought, but this is just as much a part of the creative process as building the game itself. If you're one of those people with a new 'best' idea every day, write them down and shelve them somewhere. If one or more of them really are worth the effort they'll keep coming back to you, and you'll keep adding to them until you have a strong base of ideas and background information to work with. Nowhere does it say you've got to start work on a game as soon as you get an idea - put them away somewhere, and let the best ones rise to the top. That way when you start you'll know the one you finally pick is a project which wants to be made, not a passing fancy.
That, and "give up your social life".
See, I told you it was interesting. And informative. If you haven't already done so, you should probably go download Ark 22 and experience the three year long labor of love yourself. Enjoy!