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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.

Announcing Echoes of the Fey: Fuel Your Choice Exclusively with Mountain Dew and Doritos

Today, we’re proud to announce our newest addition to the Echoes of the Fey franchise, Echoes of the Fey: Fuel Your Choice. We think this program speaks for itself, so check out the video below.

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Echoes of the Fey – Episode 0: The Immolation

Episode 0: The Immolation is a FREE, standalone chapter in the Echoes of the Fey visual novel series developed in Unreal Engine 4. Play as Sofya Rykov before she became a private investigator and before she was cursed with unstable magic powers. An officer in the Imperial Army, Sofya is tasked with guarding Leshin prisoners at Onigrad. She feels safe enough to drink, sleep, and party to her heart’s content. Then one fateful night, a massive boom rings out from the Fey reactor…

Download free for PC!

Episode 0 is a standalone chapter in the Echoes of the Fey visual novel series and the first game by Woodsy Studio made in Unreal Engine 4. This installment is an introduction to the world and characters for new players, but also provides important backstory for fans who enjoyed Episode 1 – The Fox’s Trail, also available on Steam.

Play as Sofya Rykov before she gained her magical powers and became a private investigator. An officer in the Imperial Army, Sofya is tasked with guarding Leshin prisoners at Onigrad, a city which will soon become famous for its fiery destruction. Sofya will also be able to explore the prison and learn more about the world from her prisoners. When disaster strikes the prison, Sofya must balance every second of time before staging her escape.

Episode 0 is a short adventure game/visual novel. At ~15,000 words and a playtime of approximately one hour, it provides a bite-sized window into the world at the very end of the war between Humans and Leshin. It’s also our studio’s first venture into Unreal Engine 4, providing a small preview of a full length UE4 title that we hope we’ll be able to release by the end of 2017. Hopefully you enjoy Episode 0 and, if it’s your starting point on the series, continue on to play The Fox’s Trail.

Written by Malcolm Pierce and Jenny Gibbons
Art by Jenny Gibbons
Some concept art by Wendy Gram
Music by Jenny Gibbons
Marketing Consultation from Carol Mertz

Voice Acting

Sofya Rykov – Amber Leigh

Heremon ir-Caldy – David Dixon

Rolan Volkov – Paul Hikari

Muriel ir-Kilmun – Helen Edgeworth

QA
Kara Kirchherr
Ben Cook
Gene Kelly
Zachari Barnes
Jacob Anderson
Edward Henry

Made in Unreal Engine 4


Press kit

Woodsy Studio Winter Visual Novel Sale!

The Steam Winter Sale is here, and with it we’re offering discounts on all of our games! Quantum Conscience and Serafina’s Crown are 33% off, while Echoes of the Fey is 25% off! On top of that, we bundled all three games together at an even deeper discount in our Visual Novel Bundle, which is only $11. If you already own one or more of our games, the bundle is even cheaper. The Winter Sale is the perfect time to complete your collection!

For those who already have our games (thanks!) we’ve also put the soundtracks on sale through Steam, so check your DLC tabs for the sounds of Woodsy Studio.

If you’d rather buy on itch.io, we’ve got a similar bundle available for Serafina’s Crown and Echoes of the Fey, as well as individual discounts on each game.

As for us, we’re hard at work on the next installment of Echoes of the Fey, Episode 0: The Immolation. If you’d like to see that on Steam early next year, head on over to Greenlight (after picking up some games) and vote!

 

Why We’re Making Our Next Visual Novel in Unreal Engine 4

We’ve been quiet over at Woodsy Studio for the last month or so, but with good reason: we’ve been busy! Shortly after releasing Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail on Steam, we decided to switch our development platform from Gamemaker Studio to Unreal Engine 4. This is no simple task. For Gamemaker, we had a very helpful base to build off of with ThinkBoxly’s EdgeVN system. With UE4, we don’t have such luck. There is a module for sale, but it seems unequipped to handle large multi-scene VNs, so we are building from the ground up using the UE4 blueprint visual scripting. On top of that, we’re converting to 3d backgrounds, which means re-making a lot of our general world assets to 3d models.

Most people are totally confused when we tell them we’ve decided to switch to UE4, and that’s without the troubles mentioned above. UE is best known for big-budget 3d games. It isn’t known for indie development or user friendliness. Unreal is total overkill for a visual novel, especially when the most GPU-intensive thing we’ve pushed out in previous games is a high resolution character sprite. So, why are we going to all this trouble to switch to an engine that is (on its face) worse for indie 2d development than our previous platforms?

To start, I need to go over the problems we had with Gamemaker. I don’t want to make this post a big list of complaints about GM–which I think is fantastic for certain kinds of projects–but addressing a couple of these is unavoidable. First off, audio files.  The way GM handles audio files was frustrating from start to finish. Importing them was clunky. We couldn’t make batch changes to groups of sounds. And a couple times, references to entire groups of sounds just disappeared.

These would be annoyances for any game, but because of the nature of our (partially) voiced visual novels, we had over 2,500 sound files in our game. Any task related to the sound was a huge ordeal for us and, in the end I think the sheer number of sounds ended up creating our other problem with GM: porting.

Our first (still work in progress) screenshot from Episode Zero

Our first (still work in progress) screenshot from Episode Zero

Before we switched to GM, Woodsy Studio was releasing its games on Windows, Linux, Mac, and Android phones. However, so far we’ve been unable to bring The Fox’s Trail to any platform other than Windows. The problem is different on each platform, but without going into too much detail, our suspicion is that our sounds (or more specifically, the size of our sound files–2.8 gigabytes before compression) have something to do with it.

Finally, drawing backgrounds has been one of our biggest hurdles. Every room requires a background and these are Jenny’s least favorite thing to draw. They are also large, contiguous sprites that are difficult to break up into 1024 x 1024 pieces to keep our texture page size down (which is needed for performance reasons, especially on mobile). Moving to 3d environments is theoretically possible in GM, but would require rebuilding a huge amount of what we’ve already  And it’s not what the engine is designed for.

I really do want to stress that Gamemaker Studio is a very good option for all sorts of games, we just decided it wasn’t right for us. Because going forward, these problems were only going to get worse. For episode 2, we’ll have the same–if not more–quantity of voice acting clips. We’ll want more backgrounds. And we might want to go to native a native 1080p resolution, at least for the PC version–further exacerbating file size and background creation issues.

All this added up to need to change. But again, the question comes up: why UE4? Why not Unity, which seems to be the favorite choice of indie devs everywhere? A couple reasons. No matter what engine we switched to, we were going to have to re-learn everything. Ren’py uses python and GM uses gml, its own language, so there was no real chance of transferring our knowledge perfectly over to either of our options.

A UE4 material we made for our visualization of a fey rift.

A UE4 material we made for our visualization of a fey rift.

Also, out of the (metaphorical) box, UE4 is fantastic at making your game look good. I don’t entirely know how the guts of either engine work, but it seems very easy to use the UE4 cameras and lights (as they are implemented without plugins) to make our art pop compared to what I’ve seen of Unity. And the material system lets (relatively) inexperienced programmers do some amazing things with shaders in a visual scripting interface.

Finally, I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian and everyone using Unity because the common knowledge is that Unity is more user friendly just makes me want to go down the road less traveled. And we’ve discovered that this common knowledge might be wrong.

It has been just over a month and a half since starting the conversion and we already have a full dialog system set up (developed by us from the ground up), with working choice menus and overworld exploration like in The Fox’s Trail. We’ve built out our first environment and imported the first handful of scenes for Episode Zero. Converting to 3d environments has allowed me–a person who couldn’t draw if my life depended on it–to take over a portion of the art process, building 3d models based on our original drawings. This required learning Blender along with Unreal Engine 4, but for a long time the art burden has fallen entirely on one member of the team and I’m more than happy to finally help out.

An Episode 1 asset re-made in 3d (again, work in progress).

An Episode 1 asset re-made in 3d (again, work in progress).

At first, I likened trying to make a visual novel in UE4 to using a rifle to kill a fly. Yes, it can get the job done but it will be harder and a ton of overkill. Now, I’d use a different tortured metaphor: it’s like putting together Ikea furniture with powertools. It’s still overkill, but the power tools have a lot more uses than just putting together Ikea Furniture.

So, when is Episode Zero coming out? Right now, we’re tentatively saying “TBD: Winter”. And yes, we mean this upcoming winter. I don’t think we can commit to anything more than that, but since we have so much of the framework already done and Episode Zero is a smaller project, we hope that you’ll be able to enjoy the first visual novel developed in UE4* fairly soon.

*I don’t know if we’re really going to be the first UE4 VN. I couldn’t find any. Correct me if I’m wrong!

 

Demo-ing After The Fact: A PixelPop Retrospective

Watching strangers play your game is terrifying. It’s especially terrifying when your game is already released. The flaws you see can be corrected, but they can’t be contained. They are already out in the world, installed on the hard drive of everyone who has bought and played the game. Even if they are minor issues–even if you are incredibly proud of the game you put out there–the smallest of imperfections can drive you crazy because there’s nothing you can do to fix them for all the people who have already experienced them.

Despite that, we attended this year’s PixelPop Festival with a demo of Echoes of the Fey Episode 1: The Fox’s Trail.

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PixelPop Festival, now in its third year, is St. Louis’s annual gaming convention. It features competitive events, talks from developers and others in the industry, and of course demos of upcoming and recently released games. It ran from October 8-9 this year at a new location, the St. Louis Science Center.

There are a few reasons we brought Episode 1 to PixelPop. First off, right now we’re in a transitory period. If we’d committed to GameMaker Studio after finishing Episode 1, I’m sure we’d have a (very rough, very early) build of our next release, Episode 0: Immolation to show off right now. But we decided to make the rather huge leap to Unreal Engine 4, which necessitated rewriting our VN system from the ground up and learning how to make 3d environments. So you might say we’re a little behind schedule. Second, we wanted to test controller support before submitting a build for approval on console. Handing folks a controller at a convention to see how they use it seemed like the best way to get an idea of how accessible our build would be.

Fortunately, the results were great. We’ve brought our visual novels to various events, but none were more welcoming than PixelPop. Demo-ing a visual novel is never easy. VNs don’t have small, digestible chunks or “vertical slices” that can be carved out and used as a standalone example of the overall gameplay. We basically have two options: start players at the very beginning of the game and hope the first few scenes are compelling, or pick out a spot in the game we know is exciting and start players there.

For our very first demo at Anime St. Louis earlier this year, we took the later route. We skipped ahead in the story to when the player can control Sofya’s transformation into a cat, which allows them to spy on various characters and have a little freedom in the overworld portion of the investigation. We wanted people to see the beginning of the side stories, and see the very first hints at the mystery central to the game. Unfortunately, we found that people were just confused. Dropping people in the middle of the story left them with too many questions, and the core gameplay of a visual novel just doesn’t work if you don’t understand what’s going on.

Going forward, we decided to start our demo at the beginning. Our game starts with a nice CGI, an introduction to the world, and then a short scene with a cat, all of which are at least conducive to drawing people in. This meant that the demo would not feature the full extent of the exploration/investigation, but we recognize that the story is the draw and that needs to make sense.

On the first day of PixelPop, we committed to our usual strategy of encouraging players to use headphones. The first few scenes are heavily voiced, and we’ve got some rad music we want people to hear. Convention demo areas are usually pretty loud, so we figured the best way to make sure all of it is heard is force headphones.

However, we quickly discovered yet another problem with demo-ing a visual novel. Even a small portion of the game–the first investigation sequence of the first day–can become a 30+ minute experience if a player gets into the game and goes everywhere they can. And there are pretty much two reactions we had to our demo. Either people immediately didn’t like the game (too much reading which, hey,I get it) and left after a minute, or they stuck around for a while and played through several scenes. We loved seeing people get deep into the demo, but with only one demo station, it limited the number of people we could engage. We put the game on a larger monitor to the side so passers-by could watch, but that wasn’t quite enough to entice anyone to stand and observe the demo. So we decided to bring a set of speakers for the second day.

Despite the loud demo floor, we found that the speakers encouraged people to stand and watch the demo, which for a visual novel is almost as good as getting them to play it. Granted, we had the opening music in our heads all day, but I think it was worth it.

All in all, we had a great experience showing off Echoes of the Fey to the crowd at PixelPop. We’d encourage any local developers (and any developers who can make it to STL with relative ease) next year to join us!

 

Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail Out NOW On Steam

The day is here, friends! You can now get Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail on everyone’s favorite PC gaming platform, the launcher we all know and love, Steam.

We’ve got achievements! We’ve got trading cards! At some point in the near future, we’ll have a demo and soundtrack DLC! Go check it out!

Steam Achievements and Us: Why We Added Achievements for a VN

With less than a week until Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail hits Steam (August 16, thanks to a quick turnaround), I thought I’d discuss one of the larger steps in preparing a game for Steam: Steam Achievements.

Steam achievements are a funny thing to spend time on, because in a lot of ways they are completely meaningless. They don’t give you access to anything. They are easily hack-able. And, unlike Xbox Achievements and PSN trophies, there’s no running count across all games to pad out. There is no ultimate objective in getting Steam achievements.

The visual novel is also an unusual genre for achievements. Some people see achievements as a badge of skill and, well, there’s really very little pure skill involved with playing a visual novel. Sure, there will be endings that are more difficult to get, but it’s just merely a matter of knowing what to do, not executing it.

So why add achievements if they represent so very little, and require (fairly simple, thanks to Game Maker Studio) coding and art? Our answer is twofold. First, people like achievements. Even if they’re meaningless, people like seeing them pop up every so often in the corner of the screen. It’s fun, even if we all know it doesn’t confer any real bragging rights. Ultimately, games are about fun and adding achievements is worth it even if only a handful of our players have more fun because of it. And on console platforms, achievements/trophies are mandatory so people are used to VNs/casual games awarding them for story progression alone.

The second reason is a bit more self-serving. You see, the ratio at which players acquire Steam achievements is publicly available. You can go and look at what percentage of your playerbase has each achievement. This is incredibly useful for a VN developer because it (a) lets you know if there is some part of the story where you lose players’ interest (a steep drop off between achievements that always pop when you reach certain milestones) and (b) informs you what choices players are making in the game. Several characters have side quests in Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail and we want to know who has the highest completion rate. There is also at least one big decision late in the game that we definitely want to track, even if it’s just out of curiosity. So we put an achievement on it.

This helps us in numerous ways. Since Echoes of the Fey is a series, we can use this information to find out which characters we should bring back/feature more in future episodes. We can see if we should focus more on the depth of the side quests or (if they’re generally neglected) we should siphon attention away from side content to lengthen the main story (or make more of it mandatory.)  And when it comes to the big choices you make in The Fox’s Trail, we can use the statistics to decide what will be the ~canon~ ending. While we definitely intend to feature a save import for Episode 2 (or some way to play with your decisions from The Fox’s Trail intact), there will need to be a default ending and we can base this off the numbers we have.

Various factors can throw off these numbers–either people hacking the achievements or bundles adding a bunch of new users that never play (or only leave it running for trading cards)–but the ratios should remain informative. Anyone who is hacking the Steam achievements is probably adding all of them across the board, and people who buy in bundles and never play don’t get any achievements at all.

As long as there is nothing prohibitive in your engine, we’d strongly encourage developers to add achievements, if nothing else for their own stat tracking. There are so few ways to get information about how others play your games that it’s an entirely worthwhile endeavor (and there are plenty of people who appreciate the achievements, even though on PC they are less meaningful).

Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail will be out August 16, 2016 on Steam.

Echoes of the Fey – The Prophet’s Arm (Part 4) Final

This is part 4 of a multi-part short story detailing one of Sofya Rykov’s cases prior to The Fox’s Trail. Part 1 can be found here and part 2 is here.

The second Sofya stepped into the pub, every eye in the room was on her. There were a dozen Leshin seated throughout the surprisingly spacious tavern and every one was curious why a Human would dare to join them.

Normally, Sofya felt rather comfortable around Leshin. Spending so much time with Heremon over the last few months helped with that. But she’d rarely visited their side of the border, and mostly interacted with them as minority in post-occupation Vodotsk. This was different. Now, she was the only Human in the room.

“Do you see any soldiers around?” Sofya asked quietly.

“No one dressed as such,” Heremon replied.

“Good. I don’t see Braden here and I need a drink.” Sofya headed for the bar but Heremon grabbed her arm.

“We need to be careful. There could be an ambush.”

“They tied up their horses out front. Not a very good ambush, if you ask me.”

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Echoes of the Fey – The Prophet’s Arm (Part 3)

This is part 3 of a multi-part short story detailing one of Sofya Rykov’s cases prior to The Fox’s Trail. Part 1 can be found here and part 2 is here.

Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail is out now and available at woodsy-studio.itch.io!

“This is one of the worst ideas you’ve ever had,” Heremon muttered as he knelt down below a window near the service entrance to the Melinkov keep. “I can’t believe that you convinced me to go along with it.”

“Come on,” Sofya replied. She was crouched beside him, her hand on the windowsill. “I saw the looks you were giving that woman. You are more excited about this than I am.”

“She was quite rude, but that doesn’t justify theft.”

“The AFC stole the Arm from the ir-Dyeun. The Empire stole it from the AFC. And then the Melinkovs stole it form the Empire. We’re well beyond justified at this point.”

Heremon frowned. “I don’t think that’s how it works.” Ever since Sofya had suggested breaking into Melinkremlin to take the arm, Heremon had voiced his concerns. But she knew the truth. Heremon was beside her for a reason. He wanted to take the Arm from the Melinkovs as much as she did.

The plan to retrieve the Prophet’s Arm was relatively simple. Because the Melinkremlin keep was built after the Fey reactors, the entire structure was dependent on Fey-powered electric lights. There were no fireplaces, no torches, and surprisingly few windows. At night, the only thing that could illuminate the corridors were the neon lights that lined the walls.

Very few would-be burglars would be able to take advantage of this particular design feature. Disabling Fey power to the building would require destroying or disabling multiple transformers across Volgrad, some of which were as heavily guarded as the keep itself. Sofya, however, had an advantage.

“Any luck?” Heremon asked.

“There’s a pipe in the wall a few feet from here,” Sofya replied. She pulled her hand down from the windowsill and began to creep towards where she felt the Fey energy pulsing through the wall. All magic—even magic pulled from a rift to power gaudy lights in a human castle—left a signature that Sofya could sense if she concentrated. And sensing it wasn’t the only thing she could do.

“And you’re sure this is going to work?” Heremon asked. “Do you know what happens to most humans when they break a Fey energy pipe?”

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