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Writing Branching Narratives (AKA Time Travel vs. Parallel Universes)

Over the last couple of years, I have discovered that writing stories with branching plot paths might be one of my favorite creative processes in the world… and also the most frustrating.

I experience the story as I write it.

I truly believe that every writer has a different style and process that works best for her, and while techniques exist to help any writer execute her vision, the truth is that there is no one or even best method for strong writing in general. Personally, I have always fought against the motto that a lot of writers intone when asked how to write: “Writing is editing,” they often say. “Writing your first draft helps you get your thoughts onto paper, but the true writing happens during your second, third, or even fourth draft.”

For me and my own writing style, that motto is bull shit. Yes, I believe that editing is important. Yes, I’m willing to admit that maybe I need to do more of it sometimes. But for me, something magical happens when I write that “first draft.” I don’t approach it lightly. I spend a lot of time thinking, planning, and feeling what I want to portray before I start writing. And once I do start writing, I feel as if my words come to life as I write them. I feel as if my characters are really in the room, saying what I tell them to say, moving as I tell them to move. I feel a bond between myself and the world I’m creating that is fundamental to my ongoing muse. I discover the story even as I’m writing it. The characters tell me more about themselves as I write them; they lead me towards the twists and turns of the plot, even if my outline disagrees with them.

Often, as I write that first draft, I will stop and rewrite some of my freshest paragraphs, tweaking small sections until the scene flows to match what’s in my head. Sometimes, I’ll need to change something earlier in the story to support something new that I’ve discovered while writing the new scene; if so, I make that change immediately.

Generally, this is my process. Although I go back and edit some later, those changes tend to be surface-level, polishing the pace and consistency of the story. My “first draft” is my most important, my most treasured, and often the closest to my final form of the story. This is not to say that I never go back and rewrite scenes or even delete scenes if necessary—that agonizing process writers love to describe as killing your babies. For me, the reason that it’s so difficult to go back and change something from my first draft is because it feels wrong. When I tried to describe this feeling to my sister once, I told her, “To me, that scene already happened. To go back and change it would be like enforcing time travel. It’s just… wrong.

This is just how writing works for me. When the story feels right, it feels right—it feels real—and I don’t just casually change it for the sake of wrapping my book or script into a perfect, tidy package. I’m not saying that’s a writing style to which every writer should aspire. It’s just what works for me, for better or worse, and that’s that.

Okay… so if you’re against time travel, how do you feel about parallel universes?

If re-writing means time traveling through your story, then writing a branching narrative means forming parallel universes.

This, I can do. When I first start creating parallel universes, it doesn’t feel wrong. It feels plain fun. “What if Blaire lets something slip in this scene, and Amalek discovers his secret? Well, let’s find out!” As I write an alternate branch, sometimes I have so much fun that I worry I’m being indulgent. But I can allow myself to do it anyway, because I want my audience to experience an outcome catered to their own decisions for the story, and this allows both me and the player to have fun in the process.

Writing branching plot paths also allows me to discover new aspects of my characters that would have remained hidden, otherwise. For example: while writing “Serafina’s Crown,” I actively fought against making Arken a romance-able character, despite the fact he’s probably my favorite character in the series. Next, I made the mistake of allowing the player to flirt with him, as Odell, on multiple occasions. And while writing one of those flirtatious branches, I felt both myself and Arken finally cave. “Arken wouldn’t ignore a cute girl flirting with him repeatedly,” I had to admit. “He just wouldn’t.” So at last, I started writing a romance path between Odell and Arken. In the process, Arken’s emotional baggage started rising to the surface, and resulted in some great scenes. Now, out of all the other romance possibilities for Odell, Arken is probably my favorite and most meaningful option.

So parallel universes are a blast! But, um, which one’s “reality,” again? Does reality even exist anymore?

Writing branching plot paths can be exhilarating, enlightening, and altogether very rewarding for both me and my audience. Until, like a bug flying into a spiderweb, I get trapped in it.

Wait... huh?

Wait… huh?

And this is when writing branching plot paths quickly transforms from being my favorite process in the world to the most frustrating and confusing ordeal. That “reality” I so enjoyed exploring and discovering when I started writing the story starts to slip from my grasp. While writing one branch, I’m distracted by thinking about what’s simultaneously happening in another branch. “Oh, Blaire and Amalek totally trust each other right now. Except… they were at each other’s throats just a minute ago! Wait, no, that was a different plot path.” I struggle to hold all the different paths in my mind until it starts to feel like a maze. Events start to lose significance to me as I write them, because they don’t feel like reality anymore, just one of many possibilities. And then the writing process which I initially found so exhilarating becomes purely exhausting.

Writing a branching narrative is difficult, plain and simple.

The moral of my story, I suppose, is that writing a story with significant plot branches is no walk in the park. It may seem like a blast at first, and you may feel as if the universe has opened up and given you permission to do whatever you please without consequence. But if you want your full narrative to remain a significant experience from start to finish, branches and all, then maintaining your plethora of plot paths becomes a trying task, indeed.

As I continue to write large interactive narratives (Serafina’s Crown will be my third), I search for ways to ease the symptoms of emotional melancholy and logical dizziness. Sometimes, I try to focus on one plot path at a time, so that I can give it my full attention before working on another. But this doesn’t always work, because for the sake of outlining and tracking production, I need to see all the threads of my spiderweb and how they connect to each other before I continue.

Difficult… but worth it.

It’s difficult. It’s exhausting. It’s emotionally draining and technically confusing. But if you push through the difficulty, writing an interactive narrative can be one of the most rewarding creative endeavors you’ll ever experience.

 

Demo and Release Considerations

I’m very excited to demo Serafina’s Crown at the upcoming Six-Pack Demo Night at Earthbound Brewery on February 18th. Demoing one of my games will be a new experience for me. I’ve had friends play the game while I watch, which is a blast, but that’s quite different from presenting it to total newcomers in short bouts of play-time.

The challenge with show-casing a visual novel, of course, is that it’s a heavily story-based game, and most of the “playing” aspect comes in the form of reading large sections of text. So how should I present Serafina’s Crown in a way that’s quick and accessible, but still gives the player a good sense of the story and overall feel of the game?

The best plan I can formulate right now is to include a video at my demo station that provides a general idea of the story and play style – in other words, a trailer:

Then, the sections I will open for demos will be the Duma Debate sections, which involve using the Divinity Dial to pick numbers that will beat your opponents’.

I am excited to demo the game, and in addition to that, I’ve started to think seriously about my release plan for this title. I’ll be frank with any of you reading this: I don’t make enough money from my games or books combined to support myself. That’s probably no huge surprise. Although I’ve had successes here and there, I’m far from producing a massively popular hit. I don’t charge much money for my books or games, and some of them are completely free. That’s because I want my creations to be accessible to a wide range of people, and also because these days, a lot of players and readers expect to get things for free. So it’s often the only way to get exposure.

But I’m nearing a crossroads of sorts. With Serafina’s Crown, I need to start making enough money to legitimize my company as a sustainable business, or I need to focus on a full-time job (or lots more freelance work) and set this aside as more of a hobby. It pains me to say that, but otherwise I just can’t justify spending as much time and effort on projects that pay me next to nothing in return.

With my re-release of Serafina’s Saga, I added in-app purchases in the form of costumes. These have provided some revenue, but nothing significant. So that leaves me to wonder whether I should continue to add more in-app purchases, perhaps in the form of story content such as additional plot paths, or whether I should abandon that model altogether and sell my game at a set price. It’s going to be a difficult decision. And if you’re reading this as one of my players, or perhaps a fellow game developer, I hope you’ll give me your opinion.

Story Choices in Serafina’s Crown

Production for Serafina’s Crown is coming along splendidly. I’ve cast voice actors for all the major characters in the game, and I’ve had a blast working with them so far! Meanwhile, I’m writing and drawing furiously to flesh out the game, along with my co-writer Malcolm Pierce.

I’m also putting a lot of thought into the overall game design of Serafina’s Crown. With Quantum Conscience, I tried to increase the player’s interaction with the story through the Void Stream. Although I’m quite proud of that game, I realize that some players were not satisfied by the Void Stream’s affect on the story. They did not always understand how or why they were affecting the plot by reading character thoughts.

With Serafina’s Crown, I’m pulling inspiration from both Dragon Age: Inquisition and Danganronpa to design the story interaction. Much like Dragon Age, the player will frequently get an opportunity to select how Odell responds to another character.

In this example, Arken has just asked Odell how she intends to use her authority as Regent:

SC Screenshot

If you choose – for example – “I’ll accumulate power,” you’re not necessarily locking yourself into a specific story path. You will have many chances to change your mind later, or break your word to Arken and do something different. The game judges you more based on how often you choose a certain thematic category. Each colored option corresponds with a specific emotion, and each time you pick a certain color, you get a point for its category.

Frequently, the story options will simply change your conversation with a character, depending on your choice. In this example, Serafina offers to ask her anything you’d like, but you can only choose one:

SC Screenshot 2

And here again, you can have a very different conversation with Kallias depending on your choice of words:

SC SCreenshot 3

Similar to Danganronpa, you often have a chance to spend time with a specific character of your choosing. On each playthrough, you will have a limited number of chances to spend time with the characters, so you must choose wisely!

Your choices, as minor or significant as they might be, always yield a reward of some sort. They will always give you a point in the associated category, which later affects your ability to argue in the Duma Debates (more on those later!), and they always change Odell’s hair color slightly (a fun little feature you can turn off if you so choose). Other times they will result in the conversation of your orchestration, and perhaps even a romantic relationship…

Character List (Voice Actors Needed)

Below is a list and summary of the most significant characters from Serafina’s Crown. I am excited to announce that this visual novel will have voice acting, and I am currently searching for VAs for everyone on this list except for Arken, Kallias, and Serafina. If you’re interested, go here for more info and audition lines for each character.

odell

Odell Perin

Odell never wanted to live the life of royalty in Castle Krondolee, even though her mother was an important House Leader. She hates politics and prefers to explore the world with no attachments.

When Queen Belatrix dies and Odell’s mother steps down as House Leader of Perin, Odell has no choice but to assume a role of utmost importance in the Darzian government. How she handles her duties depends upon you!
arken

Arken Jeridar

Arken has a dark past, including betraying his own family and raising Serafina Elborn in secrecy. But he has repaired old bridges; most people in the Darzian nobility respect him now, and he serves as an adviser to Odell when she has no one else to turn to. For a reason he’s not eager to share, however, Arken seems intent on preventing Serafina from taking the crown of Darzia.

Learn the full truth of Arken’s past in the free novella, “Grand Traitor.”

 

serafina

Serafina Elborn

Serafina has come a long way since her childhood in the Darzian jungle. Now she is married to Reuben Jeridar with children, and the crown of Darzia is within her grasp.

As rebels calling themselves the Red Scarves cause trouble throughout Darzia, Serafina seeks the crown so that she can  spread peace and reform. But her husband, Reuben Jeridar, may have a different vision of their future together.

reuben

Reuben Jeridar

Reuben is a man who uses flattery, seduction, and lies to obtain what he wants. A close descendent of Mallion, a god of chaos, Reuben can also change water into wine (literally). He rose from rags to riches and now sits two chairs from the throne of Darzia. The question is: what does he want now that his wife might become Queen?

Many people suspect that Reuben secretly arranged Belatrix’s assassination to free the crown for Serafina. It will be Odell’s responsibility to uncover the truth.

kendal

Kendal Terrace

Kindal is a talented diplomat. Otherwise, he likes to spend as much time lounging or playing relaxing games as possible. In truth, Kindal is a spoiled aristocrat who simply believes that poor people deserve to be poor and that the noble class is truly superior to the lower class. But his desire to have fun and indulge himself can be highly contagious. He survives solely on his friendliness, charm, and ability to diffuse situations by helping people relax.

 

roza

 

Roza Pajari

Roza is a powerful warrior, leader of a House secretly affiliated with Belazar (god of wrath). She has no patience for bull shit, but she does enjoy a good challenge. She believes that strength and aggression are the keys to survival, and she would be lost without clinging to such traits at all times.

Roza is determined to prove that Reuben assassinated Queen Belatrix. Might she have her own reasons for wanting to see him fall?

 

kallias

Kallias Jeridar

Kallias is known to most as the greedy, careless king who led Darzia into economic ruin because he valued gold over natural resources. After his downfall, however, Kallias spent several years secluded on an island with as much gold as he desired. He realized that gold meant nothing without other people to believe in its value. He has now decided to abstain from gold for as long as he can and put the people first. He returns to Darzia a very changed man.

 

 

picard

Picard

Picard is technically the god of joy, but don’t let his title fool you. Being joyful does not equate to being nice.

Picard is playful and silly, but he is also sadistic, as well as masochistic. He loves sex and he also loves torture. He’ll try to squeeze pleasure out of any situation. And if something fails to amuse him (rare but possible), he will destroy it. Because he now possesses the power of an ancient deity, who can influence the flow of the winds and the movement of the sun, he’s quite capable of destroying whatever he wishes.

lorenzo

 

Lorenzo Dugarek

Odell falls in love with Lorenzo when she meets him on her travels away from Darzia. Lorenzo appears to be little more than an idealist Vikand chief who likes swordplay and women. But there does seem to be something special about him, especially once he gives Odell a precious gift in the form of a magical necklace…

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How to set up a panning system (like Danganronpa) in Ren’py

For my next release, Serafina’s Crown, I want to use the programming knowledge I’ve accumulated from my first two games to add a lot of fun and new features to the experience. One really big thing I wanted to add was a scene in a large room that pans from one character to another, sort of like the game Danganronpa. But if you’ve ever used Ren’py, you know that setting this up isn’t easy.

Picture something like what’s in my picture above, but zoomed in so only one character shows on the screen at a time. Sounds simple, right? But this is actually difficult to achieve in Ren’py if you want to keep your characters dynamic (changing expressions or moving if needed).

I went to the Ren’py forums for help, and they suggested I try using the layer systems. It required a lot of tweaking, but I finally got it to work. So I thought I would share my system here in case anyone else finds it useful.

For reference, my background is a 5000 pixel-wide layer. My characters are sized 800 x 1200 pixels. The screen size of my game is 1280 x 720.

First, I defined my own layer called pan in the options script:

Code:

init -1 python hide:

config.layers = [ ‘master’, ‘pan’, ‘transient’, ‘screens’, ‘overlay’ ]

Then I defined camera angles and character placements using transforms in my own init code. This part required a whole lot of trial and error. The “a_characters” position the overall layer, or camera angle; the “p_characters” place the character on a certain point. For some reason, the xpos needed to be very different for each, even though you’d think they’d be the same. But these are the coordinates that worked for me:

Code:

init python:

def cameraMove(x):

global currentX
currentX = x
return currentX

transform a_center:

xpos currentX
linear 0.4 xpos -1700 yalign 0.0
cameraMove(0)

transform a_Arken:

xpos currentX
linear 0.4 xpos 0 yalign 0.0
cameraMove(0)

transform p_Arken:

xpos 50 yalign 0.0

transform a_Serafina:

xpos currentX
linear 0.4 xpos -1250 yalign 0.0
cameraMove(-1250)

transform p_Serafina:

xpos 1400 yalign 0.0

transform a_Reuben:

xpos currentX
linear 0.4 xpos -2000 yalign 0.0
cameraMove(-2000)

transform p_Reuben:

xpos 2200 yalign 0.0

transform a_Kendal:

xpos currentX
linear 0.4 xpos 1700 yalign 0.0
cameraMove(1700)

transform p_Kendal:

xpos -1450 yalign 0.0

I created the function cameraMove(x) so that I would have a global variable keeping track of the camera’s location. Otherwise, when the camera panned from one direction to another, it would always start at the center and *then* pan to a character (very headache-inducing). This way it’s a lot smoother each time.

And finally, here’s the code I use for the scene itself:

Code:

label Duma:

$ currentX = -1700

with None
show Arken onlayer pan zorder 1 at p_Arken
show Serafina at p_Serafina onlayer pan
show Reuben at p_Reuben onlayer pan
show Kendal at p_Kendal onlayer pan
show Duma onlayer pan zorder 0 at a_center behind Arken, Serafina, Reuben, Kendal
with dissolvea “Praise be upon the gods; praise be upon Darzia. I call to form a special session of the Royal Duma of Queen Belatrix Grandil… who can no longer preside, may she rest in peace.”
a “Members of the Petit Duma, please announce your presence.”show layer pan at a_Serafina
s “Serafina, of House Elborn.”

show layer pan at a_Reuben
r “Reuben, of House Jeridar.”

show layer pan at a_Kendal
k2 “Kendal, of House Terrace.”

show layer pan at a_Arken
show Arken 2 onlayer pan at p_Arken
a “May it be heard …”

And there you have it. The camera pans around the room from one character to the next.

I noticed that while using the layer system, you need to mention the layer and sprite placement every time (hence I couldn’t just say “show Arken 2” when he changed expressions; I needed to say “show Arken 2 onlayer pan at p_Arken.” But if it works, it works. So I’m just excited I’ll be able to pull this off!

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Serafina’s Crown – Released!

Serafina’s Crown, the sequel to Serafina’s Saga, is now released!

Download Chapter 1 free as a Demo

Google Play

Released on Steam!

The sequel takes place seven years after the end of the Serafina’s Saga visual novel. Grand Prince Robil Feldren dies of illness, and a few weeks later, Queen Belatrix Grandil dies in in the midst of a “hunting accident.”  Serafina Elborn and her husband Reuben Jeridar are posed to take the throne, except for one big problem: many nobles suspect Reuben Jeridar arranged the assassination of Belatrix Grandil.

You play as a new character, Odell Perin, who is unwittingly thrust into a position of power amidst the chaos of court. Due to her neutral stance, Odell Perin is elected to serve as Regent long enough to settle the ongoing disputes, and therefore determine who will become the next King or Queen of Darzia. The gameplay will feature a dynamic debate system that allows Odell to argue certain points in court based on her accumulated stats.

General walkthrough

Key Features:

  • Branching Narrative: Every decision made as Odell will change the story — whether it’s getting closer to finding the murderer, stabilizing the kingdom, or helping the next monarch rise to power.
  • Stats Management: Odell’s decisions will affect her stats, which will help her debate her beliefs in court.
  • Debate Mini-Game: The game features an entertaining mini-game where Odell (with the help from the stats she’s earned on her journey) will debate a variety of topics to uncover new, important information.
  • Girl x Boy / Girl x Girl Romances: Just because Odell is ruling a kingdom doesn’t mean she won’t save some time for romance
  • Voice Acting: Serafina’s Crown features a cast of talented voice actors that bring the story to life.

You’ll see many familiar faces in Serafina’s Crown, including Reuben, Kallias, Arken, Nikolaos, and–of course–Serafina. You’ll also meet many new characters, as well as Picard, a major character from the Ashes of Dearen novels.

newCharacters

***

CREDITS:

Voices:
Odell: Carol Mertz
Arken: David Dixon
Kendal: Matthew Curtis
Roza: Amber Leigh
Serafina: Rachael Messer
Reuben: Jacob Anderson
Kallias: Andrew Graffham
Lorenzo: Miguel Moran
Picard: David Dixon
Nikolaos: Drew Becker
 
Writing: Jenny Gibbons and Malcolm Pierce
Art: Jenny Gibbons
Sound Design: Drew Becker
Music: Jenny Gibbons
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Animating Speech

*This post is from my Tumblr a  while back, but I thought it might be useful to re-post it here!*

After creating my Serafina’s Saga animation (20 friggin minutes of animated frames), I thought I’d share some of my knowledge thus far, particularly tips and shortcuts that work for me. The images I’ll use are from this scene of the animation; watch it to see my personal speech-animation style in action.

Any aspiring animator has probably seen a diagram of mouth shapes corresponding to every consonant and vowel. I found Preston Blair’s diagrams most useful when I started out. But personally, I wanted my mouth movements to be slightly more realistic than Blair’s, which are very exaggerated. At the same time, I didn’t want to go to the anime extreme of just making a mouth flap up and down with very little emphasis.

I don’t claim to be a top expert, but I suspect that what I’ve learned so far would be useful to other people starting out, or other animators searching for a medium between Looney Tunes and Japanese anime styles. Therefore, I have gradually developed my own speech diagram and I hope you will find it useful (please forgive the fact that my current examples are drawn at a slight angle).

CONSONANTS

The good news is that for most consonants, you can get away with using a single drawing: the gritted teeth.

image

(K, G, H, S, Z, CH, J…)

This mouth position is my favorite because it can be the most expressive. You can turn the gritted teeth into a grin, a snarl, or a frown while the character is talking. For a sinister character, you can emphasize the jut of the canines over the bottom teeth. You can also leave the mouth in this position in between words, giving it additional exposure.

Due to the fact you will probably use this mouth position frequently and it has the potential to convey so much emotion, I suggest you put a lot of thought into how you draw hard consonants so you can use the position to its full potential.

image

Once you have finished developing your hard consonant mouth position, make an altered version with slightly drooped lips for what I call the soft consonant. You will probably use this for a lot of the same letters, but in the context of different words. For instance, consider how the shape of your mouth making the K sound changes between saying “I kicked” vs “walker” (okay random examples but hopefully you get the idea). When saying “I kicked,” the vowels around the K make it a hard consonant. When saying “walker,” the mouth will be in a lower, softer shape, forming the soft consonant.

image

Honestly, I use this position mostly for the letter L and hardly ever use it otherwise. The key is to show the top teeth and a little bit of tongue behind them. I don’t particularly like drawing it and I find that whenever I use it—for whatever reason—it looks like the character’s making the L sound, even if I’m using it for D or TH.  Of all the possibilities other than L for this position, I find that the hard or soft consonant drawings work better.

image

Without a doubt, this is my least favorite mouth position to draw. It necessitates those awkward creases in the lip and it makes the character look like a chipmunk. But let’s face it, sometimes they need to make the F or V sound. In which case, just go ahead and draw the damn mouth position.

image

This one is pretty straightforward, fortunately. The B,P, or Ms are basically just closed mouths. However, you might want to pinch the edges and narrow the lips from the neutral position (like they’re pursing or puckering) to give the sounds emphasis.

THE “OOH” (OR KISS-KISSY) POSITION

image

I’m putting this mouth position into its own category because it can be used for W, R, or OO sounds. Personally, I find it very hard to draw, but I always end up using it far more frequently than I expect. The key to drawing it is to form an “O” shape in the middle of the mouth, but make it small enough so the character isn’t making an OH sound. If you still have trouble, just imagine that your character is about to give someone a kiss.

Kind of like the hard and soft consonants, I usually make two versions of this position, one more exaggerated than the other or even showing teeth. Alternate between the two depending on the word, or use the less extreme positions as transitions. A mouth moving from EE to OO can be far too extreme otherwise.

VOWELS

image

Take your hard consonant mouth position, pry the mouth open, and you’ve got your basic EE or I sound. But before you claim victory, make sure to turn the mouth up at the edges, almost as if your character is smiling. This will distinguish it from the next position.

image

When making the A or EH sound, the mouth pinches slightly at the edges, giving it a reverse slope of the EE position.  Occasionally, you might need to make more versions that are even wider or narrower. If you need to make this position more extreme, don’t show the bottom teeth, and maybe show a little bit of tongue in the back of mouth. In which case you’re shifting it towards the next mouth position…

image

This position is another awkward one to draw, because either you show the tongue way in the back of the mouth, or you hide it and thus make the whole mouth look like a drooping black hole. I leave that to your discretion. But make sure you give that arching shape to the top and lower lip, implying the AH or UH sounds. Pretend your character is opening his or her mouth for a doctor’s thermometer.

image

And at long last, here is the OH position, which basically forms a wide oval. Similar to AH position, you might want to show a tongue in this drawing so it’s not a huge black hole, but I usually choose not to, because the big black hole is partially what distinguishes the OH sound.

***

And that pretty much wraps it up! But first, a few more tips:

  • One of my most frequent mistakes starting out was to close the mouth whenever the character paused between words. I soon realized this wasn’t very natural, especially when I put it VA recordings over it. People usually breathe or leave their mouths slightly open between words. When in doubt, use the hard or soft consonant positions to fill pauses!
  • Don’t draw every single letter in a word; it simply isn’t necessary, and will probably make the character look ridiculous. Watch yourself in a mirror saying the words and figure out which sounds your mouth emphasizes. Then pick which mouth positions to draw and utilize.
  • On the other hand, sometimes you will need to use two mouth positions for one sound. For instance, I provided one mouth position for “OH,” but if I actually animated the word “OH,” the OH mouth position would be followed by the OO position. Usually you just have to feel this out as you go.
  • Although I’ve provided most of the mouth positions I use here, sometimes I need to draw a lot of in-betweens. Stay flexible and be willing to draw more in-between positions if these just aren’t cutting it.
  • On a more technical note, I suggest animating the frames in Photoshop’s timeline and then bringing them into After Effects for timing. Right click on your movie and choose “Enable Time Remapping” to start matching the mouth movements to your sound clip. Once you do that, you might need to go back into Photoshop for tweaking, but it will save you the hassle of trying to figure out all the timing on your own.

All right, that’s all I’ve got for now! I hope you find this helpful!

Working on a Team vs. Flying Solo

More times than I can count, I’ve heard people say: “You can’t be the master of all trades.” While that may be technically true–no one can singularly master all trades alone–I don’t accept that motto as a general philosophy. I aspire to the ideals of a Renaissance woman: someone who seeks to achieve excellence in as many crafts as possible. I can’t help myself. I have a lot of interests, and I’m generally skilled enough to at least achieve competence in whatever I pursue, so I tend to keep trying!

As a result, I’ve often worked on my creative projects alone; not by deliberate choice, necessarily, but simply because I can. For someone with multiple interests, it’s often easier to go ahead and do everything yourself rather than take the time and energy to find other people to help you. Many times, this has saved me from failure; plenty of projects never would have been completed if I didn’t eventually do everything myself. I’ve recruited other people to help me in the past, only to find that they drop out or else vanish shortly into the project, never to be heard from again. This makes me reluctant to trust new people.

But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.

Over the last year, I’ve made ongoing efforts to work on creative teams any chance I get rather than flying solo. Game Jams have been great exercises in this respect, forcing me to focus on one specific role for 48 frantic hours of cohesive production. But the games I make at jams are very different from the games I make in my own time, which are narrative-heavy visual novels. Therefore, it’s still difficult to take the lessons I learn at Game Jams and translate them into my ongoing work.

A better experiment was the recent 8-Bit Dev Pipe here in St Louis, where I worked on a small team to create a game in 8 weeks. Unfortunately, a couple weeks in, our programmer dropped out, forcing me and my one remaining teammate to completely reevaluate the project and our roles in it. He and I shared a lot of the same skills, so we were stuck in an awkward position. We couldn’t just split up the project based on our strengths and weakness. We had to really ask ourselves: which part of the project do we want to work on most, and why?

Altogether, I’ve come to the following conclusions about why working on a team can be beneficial or difficult, even to one such as myself:

TEAMWORK CONS:

1) Finding competent people to work with you costs time, effort, and probably money. Other people probably won’t feel motivated to help your project unless they’re getting paid *or* they feel like the project is theirs as much as it is yours. If you start the project on your own, it will be even harder (or simply impossible) to bring other people on board afterwards.

2) You must trust your teammates to work effectively. This is a big challenge for me. I find it very difficult to trust or rely on other people, due to how many times they’ve let me down in the past. But you must set your doubts aside and have faith in your team members for everyone to work well together. This is especially unfortunate if they do not, indeed, deserve your trust.

3) Different ideas can lead to a fragmented project. Most likely, every individual on the team will have at least a slightly different vision of the what the final product will look like. If not handled correctly, or if healthy communication isn’t constantly enforced, this can cause the final project to lose cohesiveness.

TEAMWORK PROS:

1) Two heads are better than one. Sometimes if you’re stuck, a second person’s perspective can help you out of the rut, even if they know less about the craft than you do.

2) Moral support. When you’re alone, it’s easy to get depressed about every failure within the project. You might start to feel as if you can never fulfill your hopes, or that maybe it was foolish to try in the first place. All of the weight lies on your shoulders. But if you have just one more person working with you, you can take turns feeling the lows and highs of success and failure. You can provide critical feedback as well as ongoing encouragement to each other. In a sense, the stakes are higher, because more people will suffer from an overall failure of the project. But this fact can also help motivate you to do your best at every stage in the process.

3) Different ideas can lead to … a better game! It turns out the third con of working on a team can turn into a pro if handled correctly. If everyone on the team remains honest about his aspirations for the project, and–yes–argues out the reasons to do something his way rather than another, you might find that you agree with him. If everyone remains open to new ideas and willing to discuss them until a consensus is reached, then you will probably find that your final product gets better and better as a result.

Moral of the Story?

I’m still learning how to work effectively with other people, and trying to expand my studio to include more creative people with new ideas and perspectives. It’s not easy by any means, shape, or form. But I do feel like I continue to grow and improve as an artist the more often I challenge myself by working with other people–not to mention forging fun relationships with awesome individuals in the process–so I do believe it’s worthwhile to keep trying.

Why Art and Business Must Intersect

The last few months have been exciting for me as a creative individual and a burgeoning game developer, because I am learning to think of my studio and my artwork as a real business.

Before you groan at the word business (sometimes it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, too), allow me to explain why this shift in my perception has been so beneficial to both my emotional state and my artistic creations. I am going to use the term “business” in a very general sense, in that it represents any endeavor that can support its creator financially. I’ll also use the term “artist” generally to represent the creative individuals in the field of entertainment and gaming, be they visual artists, writers, designers, or even programmers.

1) Being a business lets you take your work seriously

If you’re a creative type like myself, then I’m sure you’ve encountered plenty of people in your life who sneer down at the time you spend making art. They tell you it’s fine to practice art or writing in your free time (i.e., such pastimes are just personal hobbies)–but if you want to survive in the real world, then you need to get a real job. I understand the practicality of this mantra. I’ve had to conform to it many times, myself. There’s nothing wrong with keeping your art and work separate if that balance works well for you, or if it’s simply necessary for you to get by. Surviving in the physical world means that all of us must feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves, as well as do our part to keep society as a whole functioning peacefully. To accomplish this, most of us have to perform a lot of tasks we’d rather not, and that’s okay. Such is life.

But while completing practical tasks is a significant part of living in the real world, I’m here to argue that creating art is equally important. Just as we must all support our physical bodies, so must we nourish our minds. Art allows us to do this, whether we create it ourselves, or we take time to absorb/reflect upon someone else’s work.

When you think of your artistic work as nothing more than a hobby, you’re accepting the belief system that your work is not significant beyond personal gratification. Inevitably, you let your artwork itself become trapped by that definition. If you consider it of little real importance, then you will likely not give your craft the attention and dedication it deserves.

The first step towards becoming business-minded is realizing that your artwork is valuable in the real world. Then you can state that you’re an artist with pride, rather than giggling nervously and saying, “Oh, I fiddle around with making games in my free time.” You can start to take your own work more seriously, and thus expect others to do the same.

2) Being a business forces you to work in constraints

You might look at that heading and wonder, “Is that supposed to be a good thing?” The answer is yes, working within constraints is a good thing. If you don’t understand why, I’ll do my best to explain.

A common misconception is that greater artistic freedom results in greater artwork. I’m not saying that freedom is bad; obviously, artistic freedom is incredibly important in that it allows an individual to express herself in her work. Those aren’t the sort of constraints I’m talking about. When I talk about constraints, I mean practical restrictions within your production process. For instance: a time limit, a budget, a certain number of available resources, etc. Instinctively, most of us would choose to work with fewer constraints rather than more.  However, what many people fail to realize is that working within constraints can lead to better artwork.

But why? I could probably write an entire essay on the many ways restrictions lead to better artwork. But I think that the answer boils down to this: when you work within constraints, you are forced to trim the fat from the globby mess of your artistic vision and find the true core of your creation. When you comprehend the true heart of what you’re producing, then you can focus all your energy on making it sing. And in the end, you will probably communicate your vision more clearly when you trim out all the fat that results from unlimited time and resources.

Game Jams are a great example of how working within constraints can result in great artwork. In a Game Jam, developers must try to complete a game in 48 hours, and on top of that, their game must adhere to a specific theme. You don’t get much more restrictive than that. And yet developers who have spent months trying to complete a project without success often find themselves cranking out a fantastic new game in 48 hours. I believe this is largely because they’re forced to focus on the heart of their vision and yank it out into the open.

3) Being a business brings you closer to your audience

If you’re stuck in perceiving your artistic creations as “hobbies,” you will rarely pause to ask yourself, “What can this project offer to my audience? If I’m sending a message, how do I ensure that I send it in a form my audience will understand? Which parts of my project will my audience appreciate the most, and which parts might they least enjoy?”

When you begin to function as a business, you recognize that your work has true financial worth. And at the same time, you acknowledge the importance of your audience, because in order to succeed, you must provide work that your audience values. This means being open to feedback, even if it comes in the form of scathing criticism. You must listen to your audience, taking note of what they love and what they abhor.

This doesn’t mean that you have to bend everything you create to appease the raging masses. Besides, it’s impossible to please everyone. What it means is that just like you expect your audience to value your work, you acknowledge the value of their opinions, and you use it to constantly improve your own work.

So then… is it all about making $$$?

I’m not here to say that every artist should be scrambling to make a fortune, nor even that they should prioritize making money over genuine creative expression. But I believe that art and money exist in the same world, and because we all need money to go about our daily lives, we need to find ways to harmonize artistic creation with financial sustenance. As an artist, the first step is acknowledging that your work is valuable. It is significant. And if sustaining a comfortable, physical life means slapping a dollar value on your artistic creations, then so be it.

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Serafina’s Saga Visual Novel

See the animation where the story begins…

Serafina’s fate is yours to determine.

Young Serafina has spent her entire life alone in the jungle with only her guardian, a mysterious man named Arken, as company. When Arken is captured by a group of soldiers and carried away, Serafina must venture outside the forest to save him. On her journey to the heart of the kingdom, Serafina discovers a whole new world beyond the shadows of the jungle. She will also learn the dark truth of Arken’s past and thus her own. How she chooses to use this knowledge will change the fate of the entire kingdom.

Download Free Version     Unlock Costume Pack 1 (Pay what you want)

This interactive novel–approximating 50,000 words in length–features a custom score of 20+ music tracks, 50+ backgrounds, and more than 10 possible endings. As the story unfolds, the reader can choose how to interact with other characters, thereby forming or breaking romantic relationships that will shape the story’s conclusion.

Rated Medium Maturity for strong language and sexual themes.

View Walkthrough

Download for Android devices

Google Play

Click here to visit “Serafina’s Saga” on the Google Play store, where you can download and play the app on your mobile Android device.

Download on your home computer

Download the FREE version to download the game with default costumes.

Download Free Version

Purchase the game with Costume Pack 1 unlocked for just $2.99 (or more if you’re feeling generous!) to change the costumes to the style of your liking!

Unlock Costume Pack 1 (Pay what you want)

The downloadable zip files contain builds for PC, Mac, and Linux. Once downloaded, extract the files into a folder you can easily access later. On PC for instance, one of the extracted files will be the “Serafina’s Saga.exe” application with a small game icon. Just double-click to start the game. Open up preferences from the main menu to change settings like Full Screen, Music Volume, etc.