Scene from 'Ishara: Bane of the Seas'
Ishara: Bane of the Seas, NaNoRenO'15
It's out! We did it! We're so proud of what we managed to do in one month!
Ishara is based in the water nation of Caeria, from the world of Seraphine: Into The Wind. You play as a woman looking to turn to piracy after having a troubled life. She winds up on adventure with either her twin sister or her sister's fiance - whom she both hates. There will be shenanigans.
The game features a battle system, similar to Seraphine, and chronologically takes place about twenty or thirty years before it. There are four endings, none of which I consider to be a "true" ending, but it is considered canon to take Felix's route because ... well, they have a descendant in Seraphine. That said, Cendre's endings are probably my favorites. It seems worth it to players to see all routes, since information is spread out between them.
We've written up our experiences and our lessons learned below.
A Post-Mortem, by Aleema
I've never written an NaNoRenO game before. Sure, I've helped Starling with her games, but I never realized how much work it was until so much of it was on me. Offering to write was a huge commitment and it snuck up and bit me on the ass. I'm really grateful to those around me who understood that I had to put them on pause to work on this game.
I do have regrets when it comes to writing. The endings were to be longer. Talon and Louis were to be much more fleshed out and have bigger roles. Felix's ancestry was to be explored. Someone suggested an epilogue, and I think I might actually go back and add them to the endings. But I still am very proud of this game and what we accomplished in a month. I can't imagine it right now, but I could maybe do this again sometime.
Starling focused on art only this year, which meant she did something I've never had the pleasure of working with: multiple sprites for the same character. It was amazing to get to shift the characters to different poses based on their attitude. One passive stance and one active stance per main character really helped, visually. We didn't need CGs, though they would have been beautiful ones, I know. I also want to publicly express how beautiful Starling's artwork is and say how skillfully she shaded the characters. It was a pleasure to work with the sprites.
What's more amazing is that Starling stepped up to the plate and coded almost all of the expressions in Cendre's path. Wow. Scripting is hell, but she helped me so much by doing this while I worked on other things. To those who've never had to script 35k+ words with scenes up to 4 characters at a time in a matter of days, this is a big deal and I'm immensely grateful.
The GUI didn't fall together until the very last days of the month. I had struggled to come up with anything. I tried parchment motifs, I tried gel-like water bubbles ... When Starling drew the main menu, I was instantly inspired and made the GUI for everything that day. At first, it was weird shifting from a dialogue box and font that I had been using all month to the one we have now, but I suspected it was just because change was weird. I hope the text was easy to read.
This game had so much damn feature creep, which is the main reason we're amazed we did it. Originally, the game was to be a kinetic novel that followed Ishara and Felix on a romantic comedy of sorts. Starling and I became increasingly interested in Cendre, the twin sister character, and I couldn't shake how great a whole arc with Ishara making amends with her sister would be. But I thought, no. I have to choose one arc. I can't have both. But in the end, I was able to crank out not one, but two adventure arcs with similar but distinctly different stories. I wanted both, and I'm so glad I could have both.
The biggest feature that wasn't originally planned was the battle system. I blame Starling. I knew I could code a battle system in a matter of days, because I've done it before, so I decided to go ahead and schedule it in. But I struggled with what kind of system I wanted, since there was originally to be only one, sometimes two, characters who would be fighting. This changed as Talon and Louis were conceived - I also blame Starling for Louis - and I knew I could do a full 4-party battle system. In the end, I decided to do something similar to Seraphine. Even though they look identical, I did code Ishara's system from scratch, but I figured I could use code from this game to help finish Seraphine's battle system. I did learn a bit more about how I want to tackle Seraphine's system.
The unfortunate part about the battle system was that it was built and tested for a 4-party battle ... after I had written the game to be mostly 1 or 2 person parties. So I had to deal with a problem of balance. How do I make both small and large parties fun and challenging? I had to re-balance AP costs on a per-battle basis and tweak enemy abilities. I had to throw out certain abilities and replace them with new ones.
A feature creep that I totally can't blame on Starling, is the voice acting. I decided to risk holding auditions for voices for the battle system. I couldn't voice the whole game - the whole thing hadn't been written yet! - but I could at least do the battle voices. I tried to anticipate every situation and battle noises I would need, and of course, once I started actually coding them in, I wanted a bunch more. I admit that I spent too much time on the voices - managing the auditions, casting and processing the lines ... I should have been writing or scripting or anything else that wouldn't have pushed us past the deadline.
But boy, do I think they're worth it. No one has mentioned it yet, but I love them to pieces. I love how I was able to program little speech bubbles to pop up. I love how the voices so perfectly suit each character. I love how awesome it fleshes the characters out and makes me love them more. I had a crap-ton of auditions I had to wade through, and a lot people I had to disappoint, but I couldn't be happier with the final result.
The next feature creep, which was Starling's idea, was a way to tie all the battles together instead of making them isolated mini-games. She came up with the idea for AP bonuses to travel from one battle to another. I decided that each enemy would have an AP reward to whoever landed the final blow. This was buggy at first, since the system didn't originally account for poison/bleeding deaths, but in the end, it was an amazing idea that really, really worked. There was now an extra layer of strategy to each battle. Who did you want to have a head-start in the next battle? Should you save the kill for them, or just finish the enemy off before he kills you?
The final feature creep came at the worst time. It was hours until April 1st when we finally got around to testing the final boss battle. Starling informed me that it was lacking. Anti-climatic. It needed ... something. It wasn't epic enough, especially if you were fighting solo. Even though we knew that we shouldn't do a completely new feature, we needed a quick fix without re-writing the whole endings to have a 4-person party. We decided on an ability draft. Ishara would draft 4 abilities from all of her companions and use whatever she liked in the final battle. Starling suggested that she gains these abilities from the magic of the real Ishara (from the fable) to help her, and I think that's a nice thought. The ability draft worked, and the final boss battle felt special now. It was a feature creep that we needed.
What I Learned
If I'm going to do NaNoRenO again, I'm going to have to use this game as a learning experience.
- Outline. Know everything that's going to happen from beginning to end, and follow it. You're allowed to outline before NaNo starts, so there's no excuse. I had a huge part of my outline be "and they have an adventure" and that really screwed me when it came time to actually think up what it was going to be. And even though I knew what the ending was going to be, I had to scrap it because so much had changed from point A to point B.
- Scripting ain't a joke. Don't wait until the last day or so to do it. It's extremely draining, tedious and that's why nobody likes to do it. Try to get placeholder sprites into the game so you can at least start on narrative scripting a little early, even if the art isn't finished.
- Coding sprites ain't a joke either. I thought this would take me a couple hours to take the finished art and put it into the game. NO. NO, IT DIDN'T. It took over eight hours and it was the most frustrating eight hours of the month. I will adjust my schedule for next year accordingly.
- Get the GUI done early. I couldn't finish the battle system because I didn't know how the battle system was going to look. I didn't know where the enemies or player portraits would ultimately be, so I didn't know where to put animations, etc ... so I put off finishing the system until the GUI was decided. As soon as I found out what GUI I wanted, everything immediately fell into place - and I mean immediately. Since the GUI was inspired by the main menu, I'm going to request that the main menu be done first next year.
- I don't need so many characters. I love writing character-driven stories, which means I like developing a single relationship over time. Adding in more characters meant I had to stop what I was doing with my main characters and have the other characters do something. In the end, the other characters became under-developed. Talon & Louis served a good purpose in battles, but not really anywhere else. Talon & Louis were definitely on the "would like to have if we can get to them" chopping block and maybe should have stayed there. Keeping the characters definitely went against all my training from film school.
- Take many small breaks, not a few big breaks. I definitely look back at the couple days I was sick and didn't work on the game at all and blame them for the game being late. I also look back on the few days I decided to give myself time off because I had made good progress the day before. I kept regretting these days in the last few hours. In that last week, I learned to take 1 hour breaks to eat or play a game or something. I gave myself 1 hour and I stuck to it. I wished I had done that earlier.
- Write as much as you freaking can in the first week. This is Starling's tip to me and I don't feel I followed it completely. Mostly because I wasn't sure I was doing two arcs at that time, but this is when you're most passionate about the game, so take advantage of it.
- Finish writing the endings before it's a few hours before release. I wanted more to happen in the game, but because April 1st was right around the corner, I wrote less. I like the endings, there was just going to be more to them. There were pacing issues that Starling helped me figure out, and I wanted to MURDER EVERYONE (she talked me out of it) because of my lack of sleep. But I wish I had finished them earlier so I could polish them better.
- It's okay to be late. I was really afraid of being late for NaNoRenO. I would check the clock every twenty minutes and routinely be disappointed in my progress. As it was explained to me, I had to post the game by midnight on March 31st. I honestly thought I could make it, but when midnight came and went, I had to look to others to see if they were late, too. Plenty of other folks were late. It was totally okay. Out of respect for those that helped me, I needed to get by butt in gear and get the game out ASAP, but I slowly learned to accept that, even though we were a day or two off, we still made a game in one month and that was impressive.
Original sketches of Ishara (right) and Cendre (left)
A Post-Mortem, by Starling
So, I have a NaNo problem. I did one in 2010 (Rapunzel) and another last year (the empty orchestra) and both times got a huge rush from the fact that I had finished a game. Of course I didn't do it completely on my own (Aleema helped with both a ton and they would have been subpar without her), but I put a lot work into drawing AND writing AND scripting. Not to mention coming up with the entire concept. So the fact that I could do it in one month is always unbelievable.
So when February came around, I couldn't help but poke around Happy Backwards and Twitter again to see who was active. I ended up asking Aleema if she wanted to work with me again. This time, however, I put it up to her if she wanted to do her own story, since I was always taking it, so thus began Ishara: Bane of the Seas.
The very first character I came to understand and love was not Ishara, our main character, but Cendre, the snotty sister. Her design flew off my pencil. I decided to give her a Rococo-style dress (because I'm insane) which helped shape a lot of my future fashion choices in the game. From Cendre, came Ishara's design. I was less sure of her, but I knew her being at odds with Cendre was central to her. The first artwork for the game was just that, the two turning their backs at each other.
I drew their grandmother next, drawing her first as younger to get what I wanted out her when she was older. Then I went on to Talon, whom at the time had no gender or description other than "Ishara's first mate. From the desert" So it was me who decided Talon should be a girl and then I drew Louis... who wasn't a character yet. When I created Tal's personality (from her sketch) I felt she needed someone else to compliment her personality, poor, poor abused Louis is who I created (though Aleema gets the credit for fleshing him out).
Next was Felix, who I had the hardest time with. I just couldn't get his personality from the description Aleema gave me and got very frustrated until I drew his "oh crap" face. After that everything fell into place (haha).
The final design was Captain Wray (his character originally wasn't going to be drawn originally as we didn't think he would show, but then the story evolved) who I did with my tablet instead of by sketching first (other than his head). He was a pretty simple design (other than that coat which took absolutely forever!)
You can blame the lack of CGs on me. I took over 3 weeks to complete all the sprites, but I diiid draw 10 of them, which is a bit much for a NaNo. I think I'd definitely limit the amount of character sprites for the sake of CGs in the future.
Art aside, I think the best part of working on this was brainstorming with Aleema. Of course that also led to a few feature creeps (battle system... my idea... a second path... her idea but heavily supported by me), but I think every time one of us suggested or edited something of the story it became so much stronger because of it. So, I have to say this is my favourite NaNo game I've worked on (though I still love Rapunzel a ton) and I desperately hope I'll have another chance to work on a NaNo in the future.
All-in-all... I apologize to all of you for stealing Aleema for the month, she can go back to Rock Robin and Seraphine now.