Old School Gamer Magazine chats with Corey Cole, President, Transolar Games (Formerly programmer and game designer – Quest for Glory, Castle of Dr. Brain, Shannara.), who lets us know what makes his newest game, Hero-U a special one.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How was this game born?
Corey Cole: Hero-U started as a book series, How To Be A Hero, loosely based on Quest for Glory. That morphed into a website, The School for Heroes, and finally into the game. That came about after Tim Schafer and Double Fine did their amazingly successful Kickstarter campaign for Broken Age, and multiple friends and fans told us that we should Kickstart a game.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What was your role in the game?
Cole: I’m mostly a conduit – I enabled people to push us into making the game, finding us programmers and artists, etc. I contribute design ideas, coordinate meetings, write blog articles and updates, find ways to keep the lights on, etc. Mostly we’re surrounded by great and enthusiastic people who want us to be successful, and I try to let them do what they’re good at. That includes my super creative and artistic wife, Lori, who did most of the game design and writing.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How did you get involved in the industry?
Cole: We’ve always been gamers. Lori and I both encountered science fiction conventions and D&D in the late 70’s, and we met over a D&D table at Westercon in San Francisco in 1979. We moved to San Jose (me from L.A., Lori from Phoenix) for a programming job, but also because it was the center of computer and video gaming. Our break was when an SF fan friend told us that Sierra was looking for an experienced dungeon master to create new role-playing games for them. Between our tabletop gaming, Lori’s art and writing, and my programming background, we had all the skills that job needed.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What was development like?
Cole: I could write an entire postmortem on this. 😊 Development was very challenging. Originally we planned to base the code on an existing game, MacGuffin’s Curse, onto which we would add role-playing game features. We changed that for a few reasons –
- Sentiment from our backers preferred a Sierra-style pseudo-3D look in 2D.
- Our art director disliked the “exploded top-down” look.
- We had some miscommunication with the MacGuffin’s Curse developer on finances and project management. As a result, he dropped out of the project early. While he very generously offered to let us use his source code, our other developers weren’t comfortable adapting it. Along with the first two issues, we decided not to use that code.
The next big challenge was trying to make a good-looking Sierra-style “proscenium stage” game in Unity3D. Why were we set on using Unity? Andrew developed MacGuffin’s Curse in Unity, hired developers based on their Unity experience, and we purchased several licenses. It seemed sensible to continue with that framework, but (surprise? Not.) Unity is best for making 3D games, not 2D ones.
Compounding this was that we could not find old school 2D animators to work on our characters. We went through a phase of combining 2D and 3D models, but eventually went full 3D. That was initially very costly as we had to hire an outside firm to convert our 2D characters and monsters to 3D models.
After that, it was just a matter of time and communication with part-time developers in several parts of the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. The game writing took much longer than expected, largely because Lori and Josh Mandel wrote most of the game “scripts” as well as the text. Those are very complex in a time-based storytelling game such as Hero-U because many of the lines depend on the day, time, and what the player has done so far in the game. I originally estimated one year for development, which was completely off the mark due to the above challenges. Game development actually took over five years, including almost a year of alpha and beta testing to find and fix scripting issues.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What makes this game special?
Cole: One reviewer pegged that – He said our games are charming. That isn’t a word you usually use to describe a videogame, but I like it. When you play Hero-U, you aren’t just playing with pixels. You feel as though you are really there with Shawn, sharing his experiences. The “charm” part comes in because Shawn doesn’t take anything too seriously. He jokes about everything he sees. But he treats his classmates and the school staff as people worthy of time and attention.
It’s a pretty delicate balance between realism, tension, and silliness, but our players tell us we pulled it off pretty well. So… charm, believable characters, likeable protagonist, mystery, adventure. We packed an awful lot into Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption, and we think it’s a great game for people who want to feel they are actually living the story.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What games influenced this one the most?
Cole: Tabletop D&D, including the Arizona Variant that Lori played, World of Warcraft, Dungeon Master, our earlier games, maybe Wizardry. Other than that, we’ve been more influenced by books than by other games. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books particularly come to mind, Piers Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon and Split Infinity series, and of course Lord of the Rings.
Old School Gamer Magazine: Any fun stories or wild moments during development?
Cole: Lori and I spent quite a lot of time on a lockpicking interface that never quite jelled, and we left it out. But those experiments came together in a different way in the trap disarming system. The idea became that each trap involves a secret word; guess the word and you can disarm the trap. The final version is a bit like the game of Mastermind crossed with Hangman, adjusted by the characters wits and tool use skill. Then our team made it look and play great. About the only thing in common from the first design to the final version was that we wanted a circular interface involving gears.
The other “fun story” is how our team developed. People just sort of appeared as we needed them. Some of the credit for that goes to Christiana, a fan from Cyprus who used her Quest for More Glory website and Facebook page to let Quest for Glory fans know that we needed people. Somehow we ended up with a perfect team, although we had many developers come and go along the way there.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What were the major lessons learned?
Cole: 1. Fans are great; give them a chance to help and they will come through. 2. Making games is hard, and almost none come in on schedule or under budget. Plan to spend far more time and money than you expected. 3. The market rewards simple, fast, and unique more than complex and sophisticated. You have to choose whether it’s more important to have an eloquent grand vision or to build something smaller that might make a profit.
Old School Gamer Magazine: Do you think preserving older gameplay mechanics in new games is important?
Cole: “Yes and no.” 😊 Players are comfortable with the mechanics they’re used to, so introducing a new one will be a hard sell. But if it’s better for your game play, take the effort to teach players and make it work!
Quest for Glory introduced character stats and combat skills to a Sierra adventure game. This was pretty radical, and many people expected they would make the game fail. “Adventure gamers hate that sort of thing.” We and Sierra learned that players adapt quickly. While we had (and have) our critics, many players loved the melding of genres and the new tools it offered them.
Each game is its own thing. Slavishly copying an older game is a bad idea, but respectfully adapting what worked in other games is just sensible.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What’s your favorite memory as a gamer?
Cole: I have many great D&D and gaming memories – like the time another gamemaster confided that he had spent a week making sure players had four ways to solve his locked room mystery… so he ran the game, and they immediately came up with a fifth, and then a sixth, solution that he hadn’t thought of. Playing Dungeon Master and deciding each character’s favorite food – the Lizard Man only ate dead monsters. The times I fumbled every dice roll and decided they defined the hapless character.
And of course getting the call to work at Sierra On-Line and to design a game for them. Or the more recent calls from fans talking us into going on Kickstarter and making a new game without the support of a major publisher.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How do you want this game to be remembered?
Cole: We hope that players will first and foremost remember the story and characters, and only then recall that it was a game. And eventually we hope that Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption will be remembered as the start of an immersive, fun set of games/stories that brought together many unique qualities of adventure, role-playing, storytelling, mystery, and strategy into one series of great games. First we have to make a few more, though. 😊
Old School Gamer Magazine: What’s next?
Cole: We’re still finishing fulfillment of our Kickstarter rewards, including a hint book, “making of” art book, and the Hero-U Yearbook. Simultaneously, we’ve started work on several other projects. The next one (hopefully ready by Summer 2020) is Summer Daze at Hero-U, an adventure game boiled down to its essence as an interactive story and character study. It’s in the same setting as Rogue to Redemption, but has a simpler interface similar to Dream Daddy and similar casual games.
After that, we have Hero’s Feast, a cookbook built around the recipes and cultures players visited in Quest for Glory and Hero-U. We’re developing that in collaboration with fans on our Facebook page, and Lori is having a great time testing all the recipes. I’m having a great time eating them.
Then (and we’ve already started work on it in parallel with the other projects) comes Hero-U: Wizards Way, a full adventure/RPG centered on a Wizard student rather than the first game’s Rogue. This was our original concept for the first game of the series, but we opted to make the Rogue game first, so it’s great to finally get back to Nona Pareil and the Wizards’ tale.
If we manage to get all of those done, we have three more games planned in the Hero-U series and will likely do more spinoffs like Summer Daze along the way.
Old School Gamer Magazine: Anything else you’d like to add?
Cole: Making these games is a great adventure in itself, but it’s also really hard, expensive, and time-consuming. If Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption looks interesting to you, please buy a copy on Steam, GOG, Fireflower (coming soon), the Mac App Store, or another site. https://www.hero-u.com has more information and links to our distributors. More importantly, if you enjoy the game, tell your friends and social media friends. If we’re to keep making these games, we need a lot more people to try the ones we’ve done.
Then please have patience with us because of that “time-consuming” part. Every game takes longer and costs more to make than planned. Besides the fact that we’re constantly breaking new ground, that’s what it takes to get them right.
Patrick Hickey Jr. is the author of the book, “The Minds Behind the Games: Interviews With Cult and Classic Video Game Developers,” from McFarland And Company. Featuring interviews with the creators of 36 popular video games–including Deus Ex, NHLPA 93, Night Trap, Mortal Kombat, Wasteland and NBA Jam–the book gives a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of some of the most influential and iconic (and sometimes forgotten) games of all time. Recounting endless hours of painstaking development, the challenges of working with mega-publishers and the uncertainties of public reception, the interviewees reveal the creative processes that produced some of gaming’s classic titles.