Two games in the pipeline mean that 2009 should be a big year for German games firm Deck13. Thomas Watson discovers how they're rising to the challenge.
After a slew of successful cartoon-like point-and-click adventure games, you could forgive Deck13 for repeating the same winning formula ad infinitum. But 2009 should be the year that moves the German games developer to the next level. Not only is the 30-strong team busily working on the apparition-based Haunted for a launch this year, but their next project, Venetica, represents a sea-change in the way the company designs and builds games. Gone are the theatre-style scenes, the funny characters and unexpectedly zany plot points, to be replaced by full 3D movement, a darker feel and a sexy female lead.
Founded in 2001 and headed up by creative director Jan Klose, Deck13 built its success on the Ankh trilogy - a trio of point-and-click adventure games set in ancient Egypt. Following this, the team turned their attentions to the 18th-century British Empire. Showcasing Deck13's ability to fuse humour and gameplay, Jack Keane placed its eponymous hero in an alternative world filled with strange creatures and unusual puzzles.
Fans of the game point to one particular source as the inspiration for the game, and the team at Deck13 are quick to acknowledge its influences. "We didn't want to reinvent the wheel, so it was a clear decision to keep close to the humour and gameplay elements of [LucasArts] games like Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion," says lead artist Maxime van der Kloet.
Concept artist Felix Haas admits that comparisons such as these can have their drawbacks, however. "On one hand, it is a bit annoying that you are always the little brother," he comments. "Although on the other, you are compared with the LucasArts adventure games, and that generates some attention."
Unlike Deck13's later projects, which were multi-faceted affairs from the start, Jack Keane owes much to one piece of work from head of art Timm Schwank. "I made a first prototype level in the form of a jungle location with a huge statue in the centre," he explains. "That defined all visual, technical and schedule parameters for the whole art production process."
The game rapidly sprouted from this one shoot, and the design team then created their design bible - a document filled with the many images sourced during hours of internet research. Schwank emphasises Deck13's desire for the unique, stating that his team were encouraged to bring in their own ideas for funny props and locations. Haas comments that, once the process began, so there were no level editors at the company, the artists themselves had to include all triggers and interactive element designs within each 3D scene. "But this didn't constrain us in our location design - it was just way more effort in exporting the scene!" he adds. Haas, who worked on Jack Keane as an intern, points out that this fluidity of roles benefited many people, particularly him. "It was very exciting to get the chance to take care of two complete locations till the end of production as an intern."
One of the main factors in designing Jack Keane was the short duration of the project - 18 months from start to finish, compared to over two years for Venetica. Schwank believes that working to such tight deadlines helped his team in many ways, as it "forced us to reduce the amount of work, but raise our focus on style". He emphasises this point by stating that the number one lesson his team learned was that "sometimes it's better to keep your ideas straightforward and quickly get rid of nice, but unnecessary, changes to the vision."
Following the completion of Jack Keane, the team at Deck13 immediately embarked on their most ambitious project yet - a 3D role-playing game set in 16thcentury Venice. Aside from the scale of the project - and Schwank notes that, compared to Jack Keane, "Venetica is many times larger" - the move from cartoon-esque, single scene comic adventures to a dramatic, full 3D environment, proved a major challenge to the art team.
Right from the start, the realism required by the 3D engine presented artists with problems that they hadn't encountered in previous projects. Haas, who worked on the game from the very beginning as a concept artist, says: "Even in my early sketches I had to indicate different materials and often had much more detail than I was used to," before commenting that painting concepts for outsourcing partners proved particularly challenging.
This realism raised many questions for the design team, especially when it came to the world the game inhabits. "I always tried to create something cool with a 'wow' effect," he continues, "but at the same time the structures had to be credible. We didn't want a completely absurd fantasy world."
Venetica enables gamers to explore the world from all angles, unlike Deck13's previous scene-based games. And Haas explains that this required the team to "invent many more landmarks to keep the player interested in watching", adding that "variety and contrast are the keywords here to draw attention."
With a different approach all round, the team were determined to ensure the game still carried a distinct Deck13 feel. While Schwank admits Venetica is "a more serious game, with dark and dramatic moments", it was important that gamers "recognise our visual 'handwriting'."
The aim for the artists was to create something within the genre that would stand alone as a uniquely Deck13 game. Schwank explains that his team "slightly reduced the saturation of the colour range, but still tried to exaggerate the key visuals in proportions and colours." Amid all of this, the first thing anybody will notice about Venetica is Scarlett, its comely female protagonist - marking another change for the team at Deck13. Both Haas and Schwank agree that, although the challenge of creating a realistic female lead was more fun, it was also far more difficult than any previous lead character. Schwank says that in a game where the lead character can pick up and wear armour discarded from beefy male guards, it is "hard to guarantee her sexy look". Haas admits that "you have seen sexy computer babes a thousand times, so you have to make sure that you don't create the next standard female protagonist in an amazon outfit."
Running in parallel with Venetica, Haunted is Deck13's latest project, and represents an attempt to meld the darker, realistic tones of Venetica with the comic styles of Ankh and Jack Keane. Maxime van der Kloet, the lead artist on the project, says that this has been achieved through mixing techniques like "normal mapping, real-time shadows and more detailed models and textures", with cartoon elements like "extremely overdrawn and freaky ghosts".
The project began life, as all Deck13 developments do, as a rough idea developed by creative director Jan Klose. For Haunted, two small teams were then each given two days to work up a basic game concept, before presenting their ideas to each other, with the strongest one selected to be further developed.
As soon as the project was officially green-lit, the art team got to work on developing the idea further. "Everybody in the art team, including trainees, was creating rough concepts and sketches based on first ideas of how the game should look and feel," says van der Kloet, stating that, on a long-term project like this, it can really help everyone involved to understand the process if their input is welcomed right from the start.
He ruefully accepts that it was simply not possible to have everyone working up sketches throughout the project, so the artists split into smaller teams to further develop ideas and create more detailed concepts. These concepts were presented to the key creative team for approval, although the whole team were involved and encouraged to give feedback, ensuring "that everybody is up-to-date and still involved in the development of further ideas".
While this was going on, the story was tightened up, game design was more closely defined, and the first inklings of gameplay were developed. Van der Kloet explains that developers and artists worked together on the project as early as possible, bouncing ideas off each other in order to "inspire each other and make sure the ideas go in the same direction."
But does art drive games design and development, or vice versa? Well, it's a bit of both, really, says van der Kloet. "Because of the huge amount of interactivity in adventures, the game design always has a big impact on the design of the locations." However, designers can have a huge impact on the gameplay too, most often when developers take characteristics or ideas from an artist's design and incorporate it into their quests or stories.
So, with Venetica and Haunted nearing completion, 2009 could prove a pretty successful, if hard-working, one for Deck13. But when Venetica people are revelling in Venetica's 3D RPG gameplay, consider that part of the pre-production was done by Haas (in conjunction with Schwank) as part of his thesis, before he became a full-time concept artist for Deck13. Not a bad way to spend the final months of your student life, is it?