Frogwares Game Designer interviewed by AIN.ua
How the Ukrainians make Sherlock Holmes and Lovecraftian games: interview with Yuriy Shevaga
The game development studio Frogwares was founded by Wael Amr and Pascal Ensenat in 2000 in Ireland. But after studio’s Kyiv office was launched in 2000, it became the company’s development center. The famous Sherlock Holmes adventure game series was created here. This June the eighth title in the series was released – Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, and the next project being developed by the studio is the open world game based on Howard Lovecraft books. The AIN.UA editors talked to game designer of the studio Yuriy Shevaga on how the Holmes series was created, gaming passion and the latest gamedev trends.
How did you get into game development?
I was a gamer since my childhood and perceived games not merely as a way to entertain myself, but also as little works of art, which can teach us something, and a moral could be gleaned from those stories as well. Making games myself has been a childhood dream, and when I reached adulthood, I repeatedly tended to comeback to it and looked through all the gamedev vacancies.
When I came across an open position at Frogwares, the decision to work there was taken immediately and so I was hired as the localization manager. My duties were to establish relationship with freelancers who translated the game into other languages. I dedicated much attention to the project, continuously suggested some improvements and at a certain point my boss offered me a game designer job. This was my lifetime dream.
What games would you name as “works of art”?
If we consider the game archeology, I can name the original Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, and RPGs originating from board D&D type games. Among recent releases – Telltale Games specifically, like Walking Dead. Those games raise an issue of life values.
If a zombie apocalypse comes one day, what will you do? For example, are you ready to cut off a man’s leg to save his life? Will you be trying to save everything and anything, dooming your team to hunger, or will you take care of your family only, leaving strangers for dead? Today, there is a bunch of interesting indie games, which both entertain the player and make him think at the same time.
Frogwares was launched by two Frenchmen but now the main developing office is located in Kiev. Can we talk of the famous Holmes series as a Ukrainian game?
The founders of the studio moved to Ukraine several years ago. Most of our “developing force” – programmers, designers, modelers, animators work in Kiev office and they are also from other Ukrainian cities. Specialists from offices abroad contribute as well.
The first Holmes title was out in 2002 as a quest game with simple mechanics, but the recent releases are large scale projects with cool graphics, animations etc. What will be the further development of the series?
We try to stay in-step with the times. Of course, our two latest titles – Crimes & Punishments and Devil’s Daughter are of a higher technical level compared to the older titles of the series. But I wouldn’t call them AAA-games.
Actually, right now we are putting in all efforts to the development of a AAA-game – which is our new Lovecraftian inspired project. That will be an open world game and the development scope in terms of physical units will be approximately 30 times bigger compared with previous projects.
Tell us how are setting, mechanics, narrative built?
Some time ago our team was often visiting London, collecting visual references, and taking many photos, mixing with people. The recognizable Victorian style was not created in one day. We had been working on it for a long time and basically already got our hand in it.
All our texts were copyread by a compassionate elderly lady writer from London and that added a special English charm to the expressions resulting in canonical voice production. We did exactly the same with voice recording. We visited London and recorded Englishmen from different city districts in a voice recording studio. A coherent and aggregated picture resulted from a variety of those tiny ends and outs forming an integral whole.
How are the ideas inspired like “putting together Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Reaper” or “making Holmes chasing the Cthulhu’s cult followers”?
The story is thought out by ourselves. From time to time we may seek assistance from script writers. For example, guys which had worked previously on Cthulhu RPG board game, are helping us with The Sinking City. But even the script writer’s version is revised as a rule, as far as the story must match our game mechanics.
For instance, we designed the Deduction Spaces system for Sherlock Holmes series – a kind of Holmes’ Mind Palace (the player gets an opportunity to analyze clues and to choose logical uncontroversial explanations for interpreting them and thus to find out who’s the criminal. (That represents Holmes’ train of thoughts according to the original books truly enough – edit.).
We were building on the idea that the clues can be interpreted in different ways and one can conclude on several options. Holmes faces several suspects in each case, the player collects the evidence and can decide on their different interpretation what forms the basis of further development of the story. And then comes the moment when all the clues are on hand and it’s the right time for taking the decision. But the player though will not be dabbed with finger on a correct decision. That moment when you realize the decision will be completely yours. The Crimes & Punishments’ story was written based on that very idea.
How do you collect the assets for creative ideas? Game designers get a task to read 50 detectives each?
Everyone uses own approach. Our experience is used, we work thoroughly with references. Inspiration may strike anytime: while watching a movie, playing a game, or hearing a funny story. And in those moments you say to yourself: “Cool, this can be used in our game”.
As an example, one of our key mechanics is making character portraits. This mechanic was inspired by “Sherlock” starring Cumberbatch and we set our sights to implement it within the game at a glance.
If you’re a game designer, if you really love what you do, there’s no way around. Your thoughts are all time over the game, in work time and after. You can jump to your feet at night, write down your idea not to forget it before morning comes.
Already 8 Sherlock games have been released and the culture of Victorian England is like a second homeland to us. However, for our new project – a game based on an American city in 1920s – we have to travel that distance from the very beginning. We purchase art books, books on architecture, visited eastern coast of Boston recently, and its museums, archives, familiarized with local residents. We also travelled to the city where Lovecraft lived. It’s so important to stay in the region featured in the game for some time, to experience its culture from every angle. In Boston, for example, it is considered bad manners if you meet someone’s eyes and then won’t salute that person and ask him on how he’s doing. Those small details determine the authenticity of the game world.
Your games are quite dystopian and naturalistic, players have to perform autopsies and to analyze the victims’ corpses. Why did you choose that style – after all, games have age restrictions and you cut off part of the audience?
We always make games in a way we personally liked it. We desire to show things the way they really are. And what age category we’re in – is as luck would have it. Our next project will be “M” rated (mature – edit.), that’s Lovecraftian world after all
Holmes is one of most popular mass culture character. And you change his appearance and temper from game to game. As an example, in one of your titles, where he was voiced by Vasily Livanov, he looked similar to that actor. How is Holme’s image built?
Holmes’ voice, visual image and behavior patterns depend on the main idea of the game to a great extent. In 7th title the protagonist was a hard reserved detective what was connected with game’s setting and gameplay: cases don’t touch him personally, he is an outside observer.
In the game that followed we wanted to make Sherlock a more live character, who is no stranger to human experiences. In this new game he has a family. We raised the bar of emotional swings and the old Sherlock’s image did not fit anymore. That’s the reason why both his appearance and behavior were changed.
We keep track of all popular culture products, connected with Sherlock and use them as references. All our impressions are superimposed and as a result our own Sherlock is created.
How was your latest title out this June appreciated?
Sherlock’s 7th title was more successful as the idea in line with the title – crimes and punishments – was clearly defined and implemented. Each case was based upon moral choice. Sometimes the player is put on the spot that crime’s victim is a real bastard and then you have to make a decision: follow the law or your own moral choice.
In the new title Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter we wanted to bring new features: more action, more QTEs (quick time events – game mechanic, assuming a player should quickly follow a certain combination of buttons at some key points of the game – edit.). And frankly speaking, the game wasn’t shaped as much integral and focused on main idea as the previous title.
According to my personal observation, people liked 7th title better: Metacritic scores it 76-78 points, while the 8th title got 73 points. But in terms of sales, I can tell you everything’s OK.
When Crimes and Punishments was out, had you some disagreements with Russian publisher for its dedication to the Heavenly Hundred?
Yes, we did have a disagreement and we get this question a lot All is simple. Many our guys were at Maidan at the same time when we were developing the 7th Sherlock title. Even the issues brought about in the game overlapped somehow with the then political situation in our country. The story told us about the group of revolutionaries who were fighting off abusive exercise of authority, the player was given an option to choose: support them or condemn them. We decided that such a dedication would stress the message of the game and would be a tribute to those people who cared.
All our games are checked by our publishers. One of them, “1C” replied to us that the game couldn’t be out in Russia unless you remove that. But we considered it hurtful and disrespectful to cut anything from the game and that is why they eventually refused to publish the title. Without explaining the reasons. So, the Russian localization was performed by ourselves, with no funding from the publisher.
Do you plan to continue the Holmes’ series?
All I can tell you for sure: we will take a break from Holmes for now. We got a little tired of making games about Sherlock. We are willing to switch to another world, a different game and all our efforts will be exerted on it.
Tell us about your current project – The Sinking City. That’s the Lovecraft inspired game. It’s not the first time you make use of his novels’ motives: Holmes investigated the Cthulhu cult followers’ activities in The Awakened and in your next titles the Cthulhu statuette was placed on Holme’s table as a trophy…
We often play the Lovecraftian board game, many guys from our team read and love his books. It’s our long wished dream to make a game with this setting.
Board game in company’s office dedicated to Lovecraft world. The same Cthulhu statuette is featured in Holmes game series
There are references to Lovecraft worlds in our games but we longed to create a whole adventure experience in that world. The atmosphere is what we want others to feel: there’s always a choice how to investigate. For example, you find a strange ritualistic knife – the game will not lead you which way it should be examined. It’s up to you.
Will it be a classical open world – like in Skyrim, Witcher 3 etc., for the open world creation within a game is a rather complicated task?
Yes, exactly. We have been examining how it could be out into practice for a long time. This refers not merely to physical quantity but also the way how the game is optimized. For now we’re satisfied with the results we have, but we are not yet ready to show anything. Right now, a demo is in progress and more details will be revealed next year in spring.
We really enjoyed the L.A. Noire concept back in the day but it was obvious that the game didn’t utilize the full capacity of an open world.
We aim at creating a sinister world, sometimes horrifying, mysterious but comfortable at the same time: the player will keep track of locations in time, where and who they can talk to, where a secret passage is and which part of the town you’d better never show up. And you can freely travel around the world with no boot screens.
In terms of designing the city, one of the examples which was taken as a reference was Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. In it, they managed to recreate Industrial Revolution’s London perfectly. We want our players to feel as if they are in Boston in 1920-s. The map is being designed about 1 sq.m large, almost all of the buildings are planned to have interiors so that a player could enter and examine them. That will be a big sandbox.
Where is the game development for PC heading today? Do Ukrainian studios keep abreast of the trends?
I’m very happy with the latest trends in game development. Not long ago that were the marketers and publishers who set the tone on the market. Most of games were designed as “time-killers” to pass them through without even half trying – all this was dictated by marketing considerations. But then some time later crowdfunding projects were rapidly launched – Kickstarter, Indiegogo – and they offered opportunities to indie-studios, which started developing the story-driven, meaningful and complex games. They were appreciated by the audience.
This can be very simply explained in terms of demography as those people playing 10-20 years ago still continue playing and the distinction between what makes a gaming audience gets blurred. On my observations, the average psychological age of the audience is higher now, they tend to prefer meaningful, hard, narrative adventures.
An example of a widely popular game with a hard gameplay I could mention Dark Souls. The game with simple gameplay but at the same time with tough emotional choices – Life Is Strange. One would think who in their right state of mind would be playing as schoolgirl with a camera? Nevertheless, adult gamers leave their comments that they were touched by the game and reduced to tears.
Take, for instance, The Witcher – it’s the story that matters first, regardless of the fact its key mechanic is combat. Why would you play? One of Witcher 3 reviews provides a good summary of my view on that gamedev trend. A guy has finished the game and commented something of the kind: “The Witcher is not a game. Witcher’s Gwent is a game and The Witcher is lifestyle where you must save someone close to you, take care of the family, help your friends”.
That is what we’re counting on when developing our game. We expect it will become new dawn for game genres – the open world detective story with a new gameplay based not on dull grinding, not on killing everything and anything, but on investigation, unravelling of the story. But at the same time we don’t forget of combat mechanics, striving to ensure its high-quality.
Concerning the Ukrainian game development, I’d note that most of our companies make games for mobile platforms. There were several studios on the market developing PC and console games but they could be counted on the fingers of your hand – let’s mention 4A Games here, who moved to Malta and Wargaming, Crytec, Ubisoft offices…
The fact we have just few studios here is connected with complicated relationship with publishers. Even now it’s quite a challenging task to find the publisher for such comparatively big studio as ours, who would help us make the game. On the other hand, it’s time when GreenLight and Kickstarter are growing fast, that means should you have a good idea and initial capital then there’s nothing preventing you from going and trying to launch your project. Previously when games were sold on DVDs only and the market was totally occupied by publishers that would be barely possible. But now the Ukrainian studios have got a chance.
The original article published at ain.ua