December 10, 2013 5:00 AM | Konstantinos Dimopoulos / Gnome
Warbird Games, the indie studio that has already succesfully kickstarted Jack Houston and the Necronauts, is aiming to create something point-and-clickable using a ton of models and copious amounts of stop-motion animation. Here's Stacy Davidson to enlighten us:
So, who are Warbird Games?
Warbird Games is just me, myself and I. However, I have a few friends in various industries with whom I consult and occasionally hire. In the case of Jack Houston, I have recently partnered with developer Cerulean Games to provide programming support. I've also involved several artists who have contributed concept artwork, namely Patrick Reilly who conceptualized Jack and painted the poster, along with Mitchell Malloy, Giacomo Tappainer and Mike Oliver. The music is composed by Iain Kelso, who won an award for his score on the last movie we worked on together and whose talents in setting a riveting space opera to music is incomparable.
And how would you describe Jack Houston and the Necronauts? It is your debut game, isn't it?
I've been making small, simple games since I was 11 or so, first copying Basic listings from the back of Compute! on my TI-99/4A, then using Basic and various game makers on the Commodore 64, and finally on the PC. Around 2000, I created a simple shareware game called Shadow of the Lost Citadel for Windows 95/98. It was an updated version of the never released Vectrex prototype Dark Tower. Unfortunately it never did work in XP or higher.
But yes, this is my first real commercial game, and it was born out of my love of Sierra and LucasArts adventure games. Of all the genres I love, and I do love most of them, the graphic adventure was always the one type of game that allowed me to explore character, environment and story the best. For this reason, adventure games did more than entertain and challenge me, the way any game can do. Adventure games drew me in and gave me a world to explore. But not in a sandbox sort of way, which eventually old for me once I realize there's no story to tell. They give me a world AND story to explore, and I love returning to those worlds just the way I love putting in a favorite movie. It's like a movie where I can walk around and talk to everyone, try different things, and ultimately feel like the hero.
So in this way, Jack Houston is a game that gives me a chance to delve into that world of adventure games and craft my own interactive story, my own puzzles, and create a really fun character to portray. And since games are almost like books, in that you can take your players just about anywhere and your imagination is your only limit, I wanted to set my first adventure game somewhere you can't just drive to, or even fly to. Not yet, anyway.
Will Jack Houston and the Necronauts play like a traditional point-and-click adventure? Do you believe that innovation can come from other places rather than fiddling with a game's core mechanics?
I absolutely do. They say when you want to do something new, start with something that works and change one thing. Don't go crazy. I don't really think the basic adventure genre needs a lot of innovation. I think it's a great genre that isn't broken, so don't fix it. Right now the game has an interface very similar to that of Full Throttle, which I think was the best example in the long evolution of the adventure game mechanic. For me, The Dig was a bit too simple. When you just have one basic click and no verbs, it tends to become a situation where you feel like you're just clicking until the story is over. You might as well be clicking "next" to move on to the next story point. Point and click puzzles are made up of two elements: what and where. Remove the "what" and, in my opinion, you barely have a puzzle at all anymore.
As for what I'm doing to innovate? I think that, while there's nothing wrong with old school retro graphics, this is definitely an area with room for improvement. I thought about using cell animation, but that didn't seem to jive with my goal of transporting people to alien worlds. When you play Jack Houston, I don't want you to think "gee that's a pretty picture of what that world might look like". I want you to feel like you've been to Venus. Aesthetically, too, I want the game to bring to mind old sci-fi movies where actors explored imaginative sets backed with realistic miniatures and matte paintings. Even the characters and creatures will be models animated in stop motion, the way fantastic creatures were brought to life in some of the best sci-fi movie classics.
Model backgrounds and stop-motion animation always sound exciting, but from what you've shown Jack Houston's graphics will go even further?
Every environment will be modeled in miniature, with some digital matte painting support, and every character and creature will be photographed from fully animated foam latex puppets. Even the rocketship flying through space has been shot in stop motion using physical models.
Could you briefly describe your stop-motion technique? How much time goes into each scene?
I start with an oil clay sculpture, built over a wire armature. I usually use Roma Plastilina, although I have just placed an order for Chavant NSP Medium, so this should be an interesting change. Once the sculpture is finished, a clay wall is built up using water based clay in order to isolate the front half and from that a mould is created using Ultracal 30 (a very hard plaster compound). Once both mould halves are created, a stop motion armature is built (I will be using wire, but big films usually use ball & socket armatures), and the armature is placed into the mould. Foam latex is poured into the mould and the entire thing is baked inside a special oven (never use your home oven, the fumes are highly toxic). Once the puppet is removed from the mould, the seams are cut off and the entire piece is painted using a special mixture of adhesive and paint formulated to stick to foam latex. This can be applied with an airbrush for the cleanest results, if the mixture is watered down enough.
Once the puppet is created, painted and detained, it is ready for animation. I have a platform mounted on a turn table with a series of holes for tie-downs. The puppet is attached to the platform with a tie-down (a 12" rod of all-thread dipped in rubber to form a handle) and the rod is tightened down with a wing nut. I then photograph the pose in eight directions, twisting the turn table for each angle. Next, I pose the puppet for the next frame of animation and photograph it again for each angle. In this way, I can create multi-angled walk sequences. Of course, there are many stand alone animations that are only seen from one angle, which helps speed things alone. These images are then transferred to the computer, where I remove the blue screen background and compile them into sequences for the game engine.
Why did you settle on what can only be described as a '50s sci-fi setting?
I grew up reading about how we would have a public space station in orbit in the 21st century, and how we would be making routine trips to Mars. I used to read about how Titan has an atmosphere, and how Europa may have liquid water under its icy surface. What if it also had Wampas?! I couldn't wait to find out. These other worlds seemed so close I could touch them, and I wanted to see their surfaces for myself.
Unfortunately, I'm all grown up now, our glorious space station is nothing more than a series of tubes where a hand full of people perform extended research, and the only explorers we've sent to mars are basically glorified RC cars.
Jack Houston is about fulfilling that promise. It's about exploring a world where those dreams came to pass and the planets were full of as much life and adventure as we could have imagined.
How big a secret is the thing's plot? Is there something you can reveal?
Well, the story begins when test pilot Jack Houston is sent on a reconnaissance mission to Venus. Something goes horribly awry on the rocketship and he has to evacuate. When he awakens, he finds himself in the middle of an alien jungle filled with dangers biological and mechanical. But is he actually on Venus? For that, you'll have to play and see.
One thing I can say is that this will be the first of four episodes, each with a self contained story but contributing to a larger story that will develop with each episode. So even when you've played this game, the story ain't over yet!
The game has been funded by Kickstarter. Has your campaign covered all your expenses? How would describe the crowdfunding experience?
Well actually, I had one $10,000 backer who's credit card failed to be charged, so that got me off on a bad foot and to be honest it has been a mad scramble ever since. A lot of it was my fault, I felt I couldn't raise much more than I asked for, but it probably wasn't enough to make a game of this size and complexity. So there's been a lot of burning the midnight oil and juggling development with a day job, but Kickstarter definitely did what they advertise: they kickstarted the project into existence. Now it's up to me to get it across the finish line.
Finally, when can we expect Jack Houston and the Necronauts?
Right now I'm working with Cerulean Games to transfer the entire game to Unity3D, and working to finish the model photography. My original goal was actually this month, but it's clearly going to go over. How far over? It's hard to say right now, hopefully not too long because I'm anxious to play it and continue the storyline!
You can pre-order Jack Houston and the Necronauts for Windows and Linux (also grab some exclusive goodies) here.