Q & A session with Phil Stuart, Preloaded
The Death in Sakkara game commissioned by the BBC gave us a mix of Monkey Island style games and intrigue, combined with the latest web technology allowing it to be played online in four superb parts.
As we found the game to be one of the best online game productions of the year, we decided to have a question and answer session with Phil from Preloaded to get a needed insight into how a project like this comes together…
FWA: If possible, please tell us a little bit about the very early stages of the Death in Sakkara game site.
The initial planning etc. The game's requirements, target audience, estimated time to build the site etc.
Phil: The game was commissioned by BBC History online team.
As with most large scale BBC online commissions it was developed to support a broadcast series. 'Egypt' is currently been shown on BBC 1 on Sundays at 9pm and tells the adventures of 1920's explorers and adventurers caught up in the excitement of Egpytmania.
This was the starting point for the idea and basis for the Charles Fox's online adventure.
FWA: Can you tell us about the reasoning behind breaking the game down into four episodes and why they are spread out over four weeks?
Phil: We wanted to underpin the broadcast stream and create an experience that had a sense of longevity.
The way we wrote the story neatly fell into episodes and having done similar, successful phasing of games it seemed to make sense.
FWA: The games within the site are impressive in their own right. Were these the brainchild of Preloaded and if so, how did the ideas come about and how easy was it to implement these ideas?
Phil: Being essentially a educational product, every detail of it needed to be checked and re-checked with an Egyptian expert and the online team. This meant that when dealing with story elements, themes and ideas the development process was a very interactive one.
The story was developed with BBC History - working with them in this way was essential to getting all the little details right!
Every thing down to the look of the hotel foyer, artifacts found at dig sites, positions of stars, recreation of maps, hieroglyphic representations and even people’s hats have been accurately recreated to make the product as worthy a piece of historical reference as it is an enjoyable game.
All the games and interactives were developed in-house in the usual way- lots of love and late nights. The main emphasis was to integrate them as much as possible into the story so they became interactive seg-ways in the overall narrative.
We wanted at least half of them to be repeatedly repayable but our main self-set brief was to make them plot-advancing rather than bolt-on. The 'souq-chase' is a great example of this balance of purposes.
FWA: You've definitely managed to capture the audience's attention with this game, as can be seen through the BBC message board. What is the secret ingredient to Preloaded's games? Is it high quality production, playability or a combination of a number of elements?
Phil: I guess the idea is to excite people. With Death in Sakkara the story is the driving factor.
Without great characters, subtle plot nuances and real believable situations you can easily loose people. Once we got this bolted down it was simply a case of adding key interaction points to give the player the sense of being part of the story.
We always believe that 'details' give products longevity. With everything we do we try and satisfy so many different people.
The fact that the BBC boards are going crazy along with the design community is a real testament to the success of this and something we are very proud to have achieved.
FWA: Can you tell us about the key design ideas and if what we see is what the first idea for the game was or did things evolve with time? For example, the illustrations and music and the dialogue between characters.
Phil: Joe Berger illustrated all the comic cells of the project.
We have worked with him many times before and his ability to move quickly and efficiently during the initial stages of a project meant the multiple iterations were avoided.
He was responsible for visualising the characters- this was the starting point the character profiles that informed the script writing stages. Something that again was done all in house.
It was key for us to us classic 'comic' tools and devices to drive the story forward- Joe's experience was critical during the early storyboarding stages.
He was also involved very early on in the creation of the characters which allowed them to develop fluidly as the story arc developed in parallel
We basically had a great team in place and combining this the interactive wrapping and journal elements were as smooth as they could have been.
It goes to show when you have the right team great things can happen!
FWA: The journal is in-depth with lots of relevant and historical information. Is this something your team have to source? Where does all this content come from and how is it vetted down to manageable levels?
Phil: The journal was written in-house and sub'd by the BBC online team with consultation with Jo Fletcher the egyptologist on this project.
FWA: How about the password feature? Does this throw up problems? I notice a potential ISP caching issue which has frustrated some users. Is this something that also works in favour of the game by making people even more desperate to play it and thus adding to the hype?!
Phil: Developing with the BBC is a great experience but as with all highly technical projects things can go wrong.
You are unable to truly test on the BBC servers till it actually goes live and this is something we have tried to push for on all BBC projects.
The BBC History online team have done a fantastic job of fielding known issues but until independents like us get full access to their servers things like this will always crop up. Watch this space! ;)
FWA: What problems did you encounter whilst building the game?
Phil: It is a massive MASSIVE project. Problems! There were lots but the main one was the translation.
Part of the brief was to develop a multi-region version for re-purposing for BBC Worldwide. Just in the journal, there are 65 individual XML pages, each containing 1-4 different text fields.
We used separate text fields as we wanted to create the 'raggy' uneven qualities of a written page but when the entire project is translatable you start running into problems.
Every piece of text you see comes from XML and when it breaks its visible boundaries a wonderfully subtle scroll system comes into force.
All the comic captions dynamically resize according to character counts and the comic speech bubbles grow and repopulate according to the amount each character has to say! This was the single part of the job we had real concerns about but it’s safe to say it’s solid- expect a German version very soon! ;)
FWA: What problems did you envisage that were easily solved?
Phil: None, unfortunately.
FWA: Can you tell us about the back-end that runs the game?
Phil: It’s pure flash integrated into some BBC back-end system. highly confidential ;)
FWA: Talk to us about the spider in the journal. :)
Phil: Yup! Felt like a perfect fit. We were going to rebuild it from the ground up as the code is pretty slow but we thought we'd just go with what we had. Not sure many people have spotted that actually ;)
FWA: Do Preloaded add Easter Eggs to their work, games especially and are there any in this game?
Phil: Easter eggs are an essential part of the experience. There are few hidden away in there. You have to look pretty hard but they are there!
FWA: Come on Phil, you can tell us… the secret is safe with us! Huge thanks for your time, Phil, Preloaded did an amazing job on this.
Some Technical Information:
The development of this project was as follows (team of 3):
Pre-production (planning, document writing, story development, game-planning etc) - 2 months
Production (final cells, interactive integration, basic engine, journal page designs, game alphas/betas/golds etc) - 3 months
About the author, Phil Stewart.
Preloaded is a digital creative agency specialising in interactive storytelling, entertainment and learning. Previous work with BBC includes the award winning Spooks season two and three games, and the recently launched Jamie Kane online mystery. More about Preloaded and their work can be found at www.preloaded.com.