It’s been exactly 1 year and 3 days since the last installment of DEV INTRO – a special interview format I established to allow HardyDev to have more regular and varied interviews. It was particularly handy to introduce developers that only just released their first independently created game (or at least can show some lovely content for it).

Today, after the aforementioned short break, DEV INTRO is back! And it brings you nothing less than Rise of The Hidden Sun!

Rings a bell? It should!

…beacuase ROTHS is the most legendary title that has ever been in development using Adventure Game Studio! Maybe even the most awaited freeware adventure in existance! Still, you might not have heard all that much of Chapter 11 Studios and the evil genius behind it – Josh Roberts.

8 years ago Josh and his team set out to create and epic Western style point & click adventure game Rise of The Hidden Sun that would rival Disney in animation quality, while remaining available to play for free.

Now, the first chapter is finally near completion, a week ago the game’s official website got revitalized, and today we can present our conversation with Josh who will tell you all the interesting details about the production, as well as explain why indie development is worth all the trouble and setbacks it involves.
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Could you tell us a bit about yourself and the people who have been helping you create Rise of the Hidden Sun?

I grew up in the ‘80s playing all the Sierra “quest” games—King’s Quest, Space Quest, Quest for Glory, Colonel’s Bequest, et cetera—on my older brother’s Tandy 1000, and as a kid I always just assumed that someday I’d go work for Sierra On-line as an adventure game designer. I had no way of knowing that by the time I would graduate from college, the adventure genre would be on life support (commercially, anyway) and Sierra would have abandoned it altogether.

Fast forward to 2002. I was 27 at the time, and I was writing about the indie adventure game scene for Adventure Gamers when it occurred to me: I might never create games for Sierra, but there was nothing stopping me from creating my own game with Adventure Game Studio, the free game engine developed by Chris Jones.

After that, it was a natural progression. The setting, the quest, and the hero of Rise of the Hidden Sun: A ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake Dawson Adventure seemed to spring from my mind as if they’d just been waiting there for me to discover them all along. I worked for months on the game’s story before I told anyone what kind of game I was planning. I wanted to have the whole thing basically worked out before I tried to put together a team. I think that helped me assemble one of the most talented amateur development teams around.

Speaking of that team, the early contributors were Frankie Washington, Damian Isherwood, Dennis McCabe, Paul Chui, Paul Schmalenberg, and Marc Fortin, background artists; David Perry, animator; Nick Warseck, musician; and Dan Lee and Jane Stroud, colorists. Jane had previously worked on Revolution Software’s Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars, and getting her onboard for a few screens early on was a real coup for us. And Marc was way more than “just” a background artist—he was also our art director, talent scout, and assistant project manager for a time.

Overall, we’ve had contributors from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Poland, Spain, Croatia, and New Zealand. You can see the full list of past contributors on our website, rattlesnakejake.com.

Many of the early team members have since moved on to other things—and who can blame them when it’s been nearly eight years since we started?—but I’ve also brought some talented new contributors on board to fill the vacancies. The current team consists of Hazel Mitchell and Damian Isherwood, background artists; Jacek Grzeskowiak, colorist; Wyatt Miles, animator; Jesse Hopkins, musician; and of course me as the project manager.

Mr Josh Roberts

What do you think of adventure games as a genre and type of gameplay?

I love the adventure genre. I really do. It was my introduction to gaming, and it’s still far and away my favorite. So many game companies have killed themselves trying to reinvent the wheel, or “save” the genre, rather than embracing what it does so well. Personally, I think the adventure genre is already near-perfect. Why change it?

There’s a real art to assembling that right mix of puzzles, story, characters, dialogue, animation, and 2-D backgrounds. I suppose some people consider the 2-D screens a drawback of the genre, but I’m not one of them. I embrace them. As an adventure purist, I love the old-school visual approach. When done right, it can be gorgeous.

Show me games from any other genre that still look as good 20 years later. They don’t exist. But the early LucasArts games like Monkey Island, The Dig, and Fate of Atlantis still hold up. Why? Because there was real love and attention to detail put into those VGA backgrounds. The art direction in the ’80s and ’90s adventure games continues to inspire those of us following in their footsteps even two to three decades later.

I also enjoy the pace of a really good adventure game. When done right, they require you to use your brain and think in unusual ways without having to rely on a twitchy trigger finger. Because of that, I think completing a good adventure game can be a uniquely satisfying experience.

And then lastly, I love the adaptability of the genre. You can make virtually any kind of game—comedy, horror, suspense, mystery, fantasy, et cetera—using the same basic foundation of story plus puzzles. In fact, that was one of the early challenges I faced when I decided to make an adventure game: Literally the entire spectrum of story types was open to me. How do you choose?

Rise of the Hidden Sun feels strongly rooted in classic adventure games and films. Which titles have inspired it the most and what elements of them would you like to live up to in your game?

Rise of the Hidden Sun is the adventure game I never got to make for Sierra. Because I was raised on those early “quest” games, I think it’s only natural that their influence has shaped what I want this game to become. But on the other hand, those early Sierra games also had some serious design flaws—dead ends, occasionally poor puzzle design, bland protagonists—and I think by the time the ’90s rolled around it was really LucasArts that was making the best games on the market.

So if I had to pick the two biggest influences in terms of gameplay and tone, there’s no question they would be Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis on one side and The Secret of Monkey Island on the other.

Both Fate of Atlantis and Monkey Island have strong central characters, clever puzzles, varying degrees of humor, a quest that you can really care about completing, and that sublime art design I mentioned earlier. That’s the recipe I’m aiming for with Rise of the Hidden Sun.

Who is ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake Dawson, what makes him tick, and how many frames of animation will we see of him (throughout the whole game)?

Jake is a down-on-his-luck cowboy in the era of the Gold Rush. He comes into possession of a torn and tattered old treasure map that he received from a murdered man. With nothing to lose, and hounded by the law, he begins to sift through ancient Indian legends, track down the skeletal remains of a 300-year-old Franciscan missionary, gain the attention of a rival treasure hunter named Mary Jane Clayton, and attempt to avoid the clutches of a mysterious secret society bent on finding the treasure before he does.

Who's more indie?

As the game opens, Jake finds himself in the foothills above the dusty desert town of Old Sierra, staring at the ratty old map. He doesn’t even know where it’s supposed to lead, but he’s desperate and he likes a good adventure, so he sets off to see what lies at the end of the trail. It’s just him, his trusty six-shooter, and the nagging feeling that someone is watching him.

Rise of the Hidden Sun will be told in four episodes, and each one begins and ends with a cinematic cutscene. There are also many smaller sequences that require in-game animation. The first episode features somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-12 animation events. The second episode has about 40 such sequences. I haven’t really broken down the animation plan beyond that yet, as we’re still working mostly on background screens for the final two episodes at this point.

Being not only a game creator but also a fiction writer, how do you compare storytelling in adventure games to storytelling in a novel? Can the player input actually add some kind of twists that traditional narratives don’t have?

From a behind-the-scenes standpoint, storytelling for a game is a much more collaborative process than writing a novel. I wrote the outline and the walkthrough for Rise of the Hidden Sun on my own before I opened up the project to other contributors, but at that point it began to benefit from the feedback and ideas of the rest of the team. A lot of little details begin to emerge that I probably wouldn’t have come up with on my own in quite the same fashion. Each artist brings something unique to each screen that adds a little of themselves to the game, which in turn begins to suggest other avenues to pursue story- or puzzle-wise.

Writing a novel is a different kind of challenge. You have to fill in all the details yourself. It’s just you and a blank screen, and there’s no one to help you when you hit the metaphorical brick wall. The big benefit, of course, is that it’s entirely under your control. There’s no team attrition or budgetary constraints. If you can think it, you can write it. And the only thing that stands between you and a finished product is a lot of hard work. That’s awfully freeing.

But back to interactive storytelling: I really believe that you still have to control the narrative as the creator—otherwise it ceases to become a story—but the idea of interactivity does force you to think, “Well, what happens if someone tries to do this?” And then you have to account for it. It could be something as small as a stray line of dialogue that leads to a whole new conversation branch, or as big as an entirely different approach to a puzzle than you intended.

It also allows you to design the story in such a way that some sequences can happen at any time, giving the player the flexibility to explore the game in their own way. For example, in the second episode of Rise of the Hidden Sun, Jake needs to acquire the three “keys” to the legendary Seven Cities of Cíbola—better known as the American Southwest’s version of El Dorado. Because it’s an interactive story, it makes sense to allow Jake (and the player) to find the keys in any order he chooses. So in that way, each player has a different experience, and game feels more interactive without sacrificing its narrative control.

How long has the game been in development and what major problems did it face? In retrospect what are your feelings about the whole journey so far?

I started working on Rise of the Hidden Sun in August 2002, although at that point it was just an idea without many details. I don’t think I’d even decided on the Wild West setting yet. That came in early 2003. I was living in Harvard Square at the time and I did most of the early design work late at night on my laptop in a coffee shop down the street from my apartment.

We were at our peak in terms of progress in 2004 or 2005—there were probably a dozen or so people involved at that time—and then things began to slow considerably around 2006 and 2007 when I moved to the suburbs, bought a house, started a new career as an adventure travel writer, and became a father. My life had completely changed, my priorities had shifted, and I didn’t have nearly the free time to devote to the project that I used to.

Honestly, I was also a little burnt out. We hadn’t even produced a playable demo yet, let alone released the whole game, and it was extremely frustrating for me. It had never been my intention to drag out the development for so long. Much as I loved the quality of work that the team was producing, I didn’t like having to rely on others to create the artwork, animation, music, et cetera—especially when there seemed to be a revolving door of people who would join and then leave the project within a few months.

But at the same time, I’d established standards for the game that were beyond my own meager artistic abilities to produce. In short, I knew I couldn’t do it myself, and I was having trouble keeping people around to work on a project that still had no release date.

So I put the game on hold and wrote a novel instead. That had always been one of my lifelong goals, too, and it was liberating. I didn’t have to rely on anyone else. I finished it, all 100,000 words, in a year. Talk about a nice change of pace. It recharged me creatively.

Today that manuscript is sitting in my desk drawer and awaiting a much-needed second draft at some point down the road. But having gotten it out of my system, I felt compelled to get back to ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake. And to my surprise, I discovered that the game was a lot further along than I had remembered. So I dusted off the design dossier, fired off a few emails, and started to put the old team back together again—with some new blood, too.

I think everyone’s reinvigorated and ready to see it through now, especially with the finish line for episode one finally in sight.

What does being indie mean to you?

Total creative freedom coupled with an utter lack of financial resources. It’s the proverbial double-edged sword. I’m making the game I want to make, which is great. But I’m patching it together with chewing gum and duct tape rather than an actual budget. Which is not so great.

Mostly, though, I think that being indie means I don’t have to compromise.

Rise of the Hidden Sun is entirely a labor of love for me, so where’s the sense in creating something that’s not 100 percent what I want it to be? It’ll get made, eventually, and it’ll be the game I want it to be—without regard for market trends, arbitrary deadlines, or any of the other factors that go into making a more commercial product.

I’m actually pretty excited about that.

As we are about Rise of the Hidden Sun!

And here’s the final peek at it: