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Making a Miracle with “miraclr”

Jenny Gibbons here, gearing up to tell you an honest and not-so-glamorous tale about the world of indie game development.

Going full-time indie

About nine months ago, my full-time job told me that I had to choose between keeping my job or “ceasing activity” with Woodsy Studio, my own company. It was an impossible decision. I had already poured years of my heart and soul into my work at Woodsy Studio, and furthermore, my husband–Malcolm Pierce–had recently joined me as a creative partner. All our dreams lay with Woodsy Studio. I could not give that up. But the studio was not yet making enough money to sustain itself, either.

Malcolm and I were lucky in that we had a decent amount of savings stored up from previous years of caution and frugality. We tried to look at the misfortune of my lay-off as an opportunity to focus all our energy into Woodsy Studio and make it our bread and butter. Although Woodsy Studio was not yet self-sustainable, at least we had three commercially published games occasionally bringing in money.

Illustration from Serafina's Crown

Illustration from Serafina’s Crown

Floundering in a sea of games

Alas, as any other game developer knows, the gaming market is brutal. Try as we might, we were unable to make a big marketing splash with any of our titles, whether old releases or new ones. Even now, I struggle to figure out where we went wrong. By a large percentage, people who play our games enjoy them and offer high praise: both critics and customers. The challenge lies in getting anyone to play our games at all. And of course, I know I’m not alone in this. The sea of released games continues to grow and flood stores every day. Only so many can survive by floating on the surface. We were drowning, but we refused to give up.

By July, we had been pure indie game devs for seven months. We were living the dream–but we were also broke.

Our seven months of focusing on Woodsy Studio confirmed for us that this is what we both wanted to do. We wanted to keep making games together, and we knew we had the potential to succeed. We just needed to create something that could excite people more than anything we’d yet produced.

Drastic times = drastic measures

In a moment of desperation, we put our heads together and tried to think of something we could do to save our studio in the little time our dwindling savings still provided. It all happened in about ten minutes. Malcolm blurted something about romancing angels, I suggested making it unfold in real time on phones, and everything clicked. We knew we had a fun idea that we could produce relatively fast and use to branch out to a new audience: the mobile market.

The two months since that moment have been a non-stop storm of writing, programming, and drawing so that “miraclr” could become a reality. Malcolm and I are both extremely creative people and very prolific writers. But we pushed ourselves harder than we’ve ever pushed ourselves before to make this project happen. We reached the point we normally would have called “burn out”–and we kept going, knowing that it was dangerous, but also convinced it was crucial to our long-term survival.

I programmed a complex story system based on real-time to handle channels, direct messages, and plot branches. Together, Malcolm and I wrote over 76,000 words of story content (but Malcolm wrote most of it). I drew 19 CG illustrations, a dozen character icons, and five visual novel portraits with multiple expressions. Malcolm figured out how to incorporate ads and notifications into both Android and iOS ports. All in two months.

Gabriel from miraclr

Burnt out, but proud

We’re exhausted. We’re burnt out. But we also know that we did everything in our power to create a fun, unique game that might be the key to saving our studio. Whatever happens next, I can say with full confidence that we took our best shot.

We sincerely hope that you enjoy “miraclr,” and that it enables us to keep providing quality interactive stories in the future!

miraclr Main Page

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miraclr: A New Visual Novel Project

Hello Woodsy Studio fans! Today, we’re announcing miraclr, a new, small scope visual novel project that we hope to release for Android phones in early September with a (possible) iOS and Steam release later down the line.

What is miraclr?

miraclr is a comedic workplace romance starring the biblical (and apocryphal) archangels, told  in a mobile office collaboration app.

In miraclr you play as an unnamed human recruited to assist the archangels of heaven with the creation and implementation of the first true miracle in over 400 years. Because you can’t visit them in their office, you are  given access to miraclr, an app used by the Archangels for intra-office messaging. It looks a little like Slack, with similarly structured channels and PMs. (Very early screenshot below)

When you first start up miraclr, you will decide on a time zone and a scheduled time for daily morning meetings. From then on, miraclr will unfold (mostly) in real-time, whether or not you have the game open. Your co-workers (the Archangels) will talk among themselves, ask for your input, and private message you for both work and personal reasons. Your timely responses–or lack thereof–will affect how the story unfolds and romantic relationships.

Why a new game now?

Woodsy Studio is currently in the middle of developing Echoes of the Fey: The Last Sacrament, the next episode of Echoes of the Fey and the follow up to The Fox’s Trail, which just released two weeks ago on Playstation 4. So why divert our attention and resources away from that?

First off, The Last Sacrament is going to be a big game. Easily the largest and most complex we’ve ever done. We’ve made lots of progress–all but a few environments are done, half the game is playable and the RiftRealms mini-game is getting close to its final form. We still believe we’re on track to release in 2018.

But right now we need a break from it. We want to get something new out for people to play. We’d like to expand our presence on mobile, something the scale of The Last Sacrament just doesn’t allow with a two person team. And finally, we want to explore other methods of storytelling and experiment a little with what our audience wants from a visual novel style game.

With Echoes of the Fey, Woodsy Studio largely moved away from the traditional visual novel format and dating sim conventions. We’re bringing those back with miraclr, which will feature multiple romance paths and more focus on character/dialog than the mystery stories of EotF. It will also be a bit of a return to an older style for me (Malcolm), since most of my writing experience is in comedy. This will largely be a return to my writing style in The Closer: Game of the Year Edition, though with fewer baseball and philosophy jokes for a different audience.

When will it be done?

miraclr is a unique project for us, in that we’re hoping for a very quick turnaround. The format (a slack-like messenger app) limits the scope of the project, especially in regards to artwork. There will be CGs, emojis, and “photos” shared by the angels in the channel, but we intend for the main draw of miraclr to be the writing and unique time-based format. It won’t be a terribly long game–a visual novella if you will–but there will be seven days of content and multiple branches.

We’ve already proto-typed a version of the app that can display the story in real-time and have most of the first day written, which along with some initial art only took a few days. We also know that Echoes of the Fey is the main focus for our studio, and we can’t let a new project take too much of our focus away from that.

With all that in mind, we’re targeting an early September release date for miraclr. Hopefully you’ll be playing it soon!

*UPDATE*: As of September 20, we are finished with “miraclr” and in the testing/porting phase! We’re now hoping to release on Google Play and the App Store for iPhone and iPad September 26. Stay tuned!

For updates (as well as Echoes of the Fey info) follow us on twitter at @WoodsyStudio.

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Your Friendly Neighborhood Vampire Detective

Last weekend I participated in the STL Scatterjam 2015 with Malcolm Pierce and musician Sarah Wahoff. Scatterjams are a type of game jam that started in St Louis last year. Teams are encouraged to form up long before the jam begins, thereby skipping the awkward phase of most game jams in which teams are hastily formed amongst strangers. While it’s still good to try working with new people during a jam, for a Scatterjam you have more time to reach out to other members of your community and ensure the team you form is a good fit. Group festivities are only at the beginning and end of the jam; while working on games, teams can scatter as they please to work at home or elsewhere.

The theme was “connections.”

It’s a broad theme that can encompass almost anything, so my team had a hard time deciding what sort of game to make at first. We drank beers and threw some ideas onto a white board. But as soon as Malcolm said, “What if you’re a vampire detective…” we knew we were on to something fun.

We decided to use RPG Maker like last year, and Malcolm is the RPG Maker expert, so he got to building the environment while I sat down and started drawing. We decided to put all of our assets through a specific color pallet, so that the tiles that come packaged with RPG Maker would have a fresh look. Sarah started composing some melodies, and we all dove deeply into the work.

On the second day of the jam I took a short break from drawing to try collaborating with Sarah on music. I haven’t had many chances to collaborate with other musicians, so I really enjoyed rearranging one of her melodies into a new piece. You can hear the song we made together in the game, and a little clip of it at the end of the trailer.

Finally, I asked David Dixon if he had any interest in throwing his voice talent into the mix, because I’ve really enjoyed working with him on projects like the Serafina’s Saga animation and Serafina’s Crown. My team and and I tried to voice the rest of the cast with our own humble VA efforts (and less than ideal recording setup).

By the end of the game jam, we had this!

It has some pretty rough edges like anything that comes out of a game jam (and a few of the art assets may be a little familiar :p), but altogether I’m proud of our little dark comedy. There’s about 20-30 minutes of playable content altogether, including alternate endings.

Download it free from itch.io!

If you give it a try, I hope you enjoy it!

 

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Writing Good Female Characters

On many occasions, I have seen this question asked, or someone has asked me directly: “Do you have any tips for writing female characters?” My answer to this question is simple:

If you want to write a good female character, don’t try to write a female character. Write a good character… who just so happens to be female.

I’m sure I’ve written plenty of bad female characters. Men aren’t the only ones who struggle with this problem. We have all seen women portrayed a certain way in mass media, or through society’s expectations, so we tend to approach female characters as being distinctly female long before we start focusing on them as well-rounded characters.

In one of the first novels I ever wrote, my main character was a pathetic, swooning, boy-crazy snooze-ball. She embodied some of the worst stereotypes that women are typically given in popular entertainment. It didn’t matter that I was female and writing a female character. I didn’t sympathize with her at all. I was just writing a woman as I thought she was supposed to be written.

I didn’t realize my mistake until many years later. Before that, I tried switching over to writing male protagonists. I guess after that first disastrous novel, I thought to myself, “Wow, women are no fun to write about at all.” It wasn’t until many years later that I understood how blinded I was by my own acceptance of a woman’s typical role in mass media. And oddly enough, it was my boyfriend – now husband – who helped me realize my error.

Since then, I have tried to get better at writing strong, interesting female characters. I’m still working on improving. And that doesn’t mean I never write a female character who has lots of weaknesses.

A balance of flaws and strengths remains essential for writing any good character, male or female.

Another mistake I see a lot of writers make when trying to write “strong female characters” is that they make her completely perfect, with barely any weaknesses whatsoever. That is not an interesting character. That is a robot. Just make her human, with a decent balance of strengths and weaknesses that will keep us wondering whether she will overcome each challenge she faces.

If you continue to struggle with writing good female characters, as I do, try to take gender out of the equation completely when you’re first coming up with your characters. Outline their back-story, personality, and circumstances before you slap them with a male or female label. Or try switching the genders after you have fleshed out your general cast, and see if that might make a more interesting combo.

I’m not saying you can’t have any differences between your male and female characters. However…

The only times gender should significantly change your character’s behavior is when romance gets factored into the story, or when your story is set within a society that treats men and women with different standards.

Otherwise, gender simply shouldn’t play a large role in creating your characters. Yes, we may have different bodies, different hormones. But the differences are not black and white, and they fall in a scale from one person to the next. We are all human, and the rest is circumstantial.