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EDI Games

By Oli Wilkinson | Published Jan 20 2010 10:46 AM in Interviews

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We speak to Raymond Jacobs, founder of Massachusetts–based independent game studio Ethereal Darkness
Interactive about their history and experiences developing RPG-Adventure games Morning’s Wrath and The Lost City of Malathedra.

Raymond talks over the lessons learned from the past and tells us how they’re constantly refining their processes and technology to bring us new games "http://staticgame.com/">STATIC: Investigator Training and Morning’s Wrath 2, both powered by EDI’s first-party engine technology Selenite.


Can you tell me a little about how was EDI Founded?


EDI was founded by me, Raymond Jacobs, in around 2002. Since around the early- to mid-90's I'd been a passionate gamer; mostly adventure games, and after long I decided that I wanted to be like
the designers I admired and create interactive experiences that moved people too. As I was very young when I started this journey, it was a long while before I had the experience, skill and
commitment to develop anything worthwhile, not to mention commercially viable; EDI Games is my first attempt at this.




Morning’s Wrath

Was Morning’s Wrath EDI’s first game
title?


Morning's Wrath, was EDI's first game title... however that doesn't tell the whole story. I created a non-published adventure game under a different name than EDI Games; but it really wasn't any
good. There are however, plans to take the original base story and design and bring it up to date as a new IP for EDI Games, as it represented a very raw, misdirected application of my inspiration
and I think there is some value in that.




Members of GameDev.net first became aware of EDI way back
in 2005 when you released Morning’s Wrath...


Well, I'd lurked and posted about it on GameDev.net long before we released it in 2005; those were very exciting times, I was learning a lot about game development and engine design and
GameDev.net didn't have many folks working on serious releases; this seems to have changed since then though.




Where did the idea for Morning’s Wrath come
from?


The initial ideas for Morning’s Wrath came out of desperation; I had just scrapped a partially finished game idea and knew I wanted to go for something a bit medieval and epic. Diablo was an
obvious inspiration in terms of gameplay; but I also mixed it with a lot of traditional adventure game concepts. In writing the story; I took the standard cliché, of a princess whose kingdom
has come under attack, but mixed in a magical well, which granted immense power but at the cost of your health and sanity. Princess Morning would have to sacrifice herself to save her kingdom, but
instead of dying she would have to live with her sacrifice.




How well was Morning’s Wrath received by critics and
gamers?


Morning's Wrath was much better received by critics than I would have thought; due to the dated graphics. Our reviews were quite good and we routinely get emails from gamers telling us how much
they like it. We have a gamespot user score of 7.4 and a PC GameZone score of 7.4. Sales were modest, selling around 500 copies independently; and a few hundred more through resellers such as
Stardock; as well as doing a distribution deal with Game Tap.




Are you still selling Morning’s Wrath?


Yup, we still sell Morning's Wrath, though the site is currently down for redesign since Morning's Wrath 2 is nearing :)




How well is it doing for an “old” game?


We sell a handful of copies each month; being four years old now, I think it has excellent staying power; and with Morning's Wrath 2 coming it should only energize the original.




How many people were involved with the development of
Morning’s Wrath and who did what at the time?


Being our first game, management wasn't what it should have been; so there were many of folks coming and going; but there were some whose efforts really made Morning's Wrath possible...


  • Raymond Jacobs - yours truly - probably a bit of bad form to put myself first, but I ended up doing the majority of the work on Morning's Wrath, 90% of the graphics and animation; buildingthe engine, over half the writing and gameplay scripting.
  • Zach Todd did a lot of writing for Morning's Wrath, primarily the back-story, he also did a lot of level design and gameplay scripting.
  • Adam Frechette was responsible for the soundtrack; which lots of folks seemed to really like.
  • Jenna Hoffstein did some great work on character modelling; taking my initial works and making them better.
  • Morgan Chaput was responsible for the great sketches in the intro and a lot of the in-game items; all hand drawn and scanned.


What lessons did you learn from the development of
Morning’s Wrath?


We learned a ton of lessons while making Morning's Wrath - the first being that a game can't take four years to create! This time-line was the result of inexperience and bad time management. In
terms of game engine development, the use of existing, proven tools is paramount; no one cares how hard you worked on your engine, or how many bugs you fixed.


I learned that the gaming press is pretty much just waiting for news; it doesn't take much to get basic notice; so write up a basic press release and some screen shots, email them to key sites and
your news will spread. Fun gameplay is paramount to an enjoyable gameplay experience; good graphics that resonate with your target market, is paramount to getting folks to try your game.




After Morning’s Wrath, what did EDI games do next
– did you take a break, plow headlong into your next game, or...?


After Morning's Wrath, we jumped straight into our second game, The Lost City of Malathedra, which was released Nov 1 2008. I do remember it wasn't that long of a break... maybe a month or two;
but work started with the development of a new engine, since Malathedra was a traditional point and click adventure game, but with some modern flair; 3D terrain and pixel shader lighting. This took
us three years to create, because we didn't learn our lesson in some areas, and we over-designed in others.




Lost City of Malathedra


What inspired the idea behind this game, as it’s so
different in theme to the original Morning’s Wrath?


Malathedra was a completely different animal; I had enough with the medieval RPG genre after working four years on Morning's Wrath; I decided a modern semi-realistic adventure setting would be a
nice change.




Did you use the same team to create Lost City?


Nope, we used a completely different team; in part because Malthedra was a very different animal which didn't resonate with Morning's Wrath team members. Some team members were just "done" with
game development for the foreseeable future – it’s not for everyone.


For Malathedra we had far less team member turnover than with Morning's Wrath; primarily due to enforcing higher requirements of team members to weed out folks who weren't skilled or committed.
Malathedra was a three man team:


  • Myself, doing all of the art, engine development, most of the writing and half of the gameplay scripting
  • Brian Linton did additional writing and did the other half of the gameplay scripting.
  • Joe Francis was in charge of Malathedra's soundtrack, which I feel had some really great themes, we'll likely revisit.


Did you carry any ideas, lessons or feedback forward from
the development of Morning’s Wrath into Lost City?


Absolutely; the biggest lesson forward was that 'we are now in the business of making games'; it was no longer an experiment as to 'if' we could create and sell a game, we already did that - now
we had to try and refine the process.





Did you use the same engine?


I developed our second engine for Malathedra; mainly because it was vastly different from the Morning's Wrath engine; and the Morning's Wrath engine suffered from major design flaws and feature
creep. A key element in our engine design change was to make the engine 100% data driven, using XML and Lua scripting. In Morning's Wrath we had to muck about in C++ every time we wanted a new
feature; we would create a basic adventure engine and use external data to shape the experience.


We also used a lot more 'off the shelf' and proven components to make development fast and stable, the C++ Standard Library, Lua, Boost, TinyXML to name a few. We saw major benefits from this new
engine; Morning's Wrath development was plagued by engine tweaking and debugging where there was almost none of this during Malathedra's development.




The Present

How many people are involved in EDI now and what are their
roles?


The folks involved in EDI change drastically from game to game; at the moment you can say that my wife Jacki and I are the two solid members.





EDI have just released STATIC: Investigator training
– can you tell us more about this game?


STATIC is a real exciting game for us; a complete departure from what we've done in the past. It intertwines traditional adventure gameplay, with gathering evidence of paranormal activity; and
some personal scares :)




What’s the game about? What’s the story?


It is a paranormal adventure; where you assume the role of Julie Masters, a young woman, interested in all things paranormal, who is seeking membership with Berkshire Paranormal, a Paranormal
Investigation society based in the Houghton Mansion in North Adams, Massachusetts USA.


The Mansion was the scene of a gruesome tragedy in the early 1900's where Mary Houghton was killed in an automobile accident when her chauffeur John Widders made an error and the soft-shoulder of
the road collapsed, sending the vehicle down a cliff. John survived the accident; only to commit suicide a day later with a horse pistol; not long after that A.C. Houghton Mary's father died
mysteriously as well.


Julie is granted an opportunity to investigate the mansion; and if she does well she'll become a member of Berkshire Paranormal. As she investigates the mansion and its surrounding areas; she
begins to discover there is more to the history of the Houghton Mansion than first met the eye.




Where did the idea come from?


Jacki discovered Berkshire Paranormal and the Houghton mansion; while she was looking for some local stories to base a game from. We both attended once of their fall events, where you can
investigate the mansion; we approached Nick Mantello (head of Berkshire Paranormal) and he was excited from the start. We worked closely with him to understand the history of the mansion and Jacki
wound an interesting twist into the historical accounts of what happened there.





STATIC uses Motion-captured footage of live actors in the
game – can you explain how this came about? Why did you depart from using hand drawn/rendered images to using video footage?


Jacki wanted to do a paranormal investigation game; and we felt that using footage instead of drawn/rendered characters and areas would help to convey the mood and show people that it is based on
real life happenings. In addition to that; we were able to capture the beauty of the mansion with very little effort; modelling and rendering an equivalent of it would have been costly and time
consuming.




Did you face any special challenges when doing the game in
this way?


Absolutely; it was our first game of this kind; so we had to develop some special ways to capture video and photograph scenes to get what we needed.


There is also way more of a 'human element' in doing a game like this; props, clothing, acting direction, schedules; photo releases, location releases; waivers of personal injury, etc. etc.




Would you develop a game with this idea and style
again?


Absolutely; it is very rewarding and it seems as if folks like it; Jacki is taking the holidays off, but then she'll be back working on STATIC 2; which is set in Salem, Massachusetts




Who was involved in the creation of STATIC?


Due to the nature of the game, it had the most human involvement of any of our games - but as for developers, it was Jacki and I.


Writing: Jacki handled all aspects of writing, from initial idea to complete design document; the design of STATIC was meticulous.


Programming: I handled all the programming for STATIC; compared to our two previous games, programming was the least time consuming process; mainly due to our new engine Selenite.


Location work: Jacki handled the on-location relationships with Berkshire Paranormal; while I handled the business side of things.


Casting: Jacki handled all casting work, including planning/coordinating filming schedules and photo shoots


Technical: I handled all of the technical aspects; video equipment, specialized editing tools; even the preparation of a chroma-key green sprayed tread-mill that would capture realistic
walking cycles from actors.


Voice Talent: Jacki was in charge of writing all the dialogue; instructing voice actors and the capture process; I was in charge of processing audio for EVPs and other special effects.


Costume Design: Jacki handled most of the costume design/ preparation for the actors.


Video Processing: Jacki and I both shared the work of processing source video into sprites; which was very labor intensive.


Additional Graphics: I handled all the special effects work and additional graphics; as well as processing a lot of photographs for in-game use.


Filming Direction: Jacki instructed all the actors; I oversaw the process and chimed in about any technical implications/limitations.


Actors:


  • Laura Frechette - Julie Masters
  • Nick Mantello - As himself
  • Tara McCaughey - Lindsey
  • John Erickson - John Widders
  • Shana Goodman - Mary Houghton
  • Billy Grimaldi - A.C. Houghton
  • Brenda Grimaldi - Cordelia Houghton


Technology


You’re developing your new Selenite Engine/Editor
– have you always developed your own engines?


Yup, engine development is a good piece of what we do at EDI Games.




Why make your own engine?


There are a couple of reasons; one being, I personally enjoy engine development - and now, three engines in, I am also rather good at it. While at EDI we develop games, we also aspire to be a game
engine/middleware company; this is going to be more apparent in early 2010 when we start licensing Selenite to the public. We already have some valuable folks set to be early adopters of Selenite, a
notable celebrity would be Dave Gilbert and Wadjet Eye Games (of The Shivah and Blackwell series fame).


I also feel that most 'serious' game engines these days are still far too complicated and generalized; what we need is 'RPG Maker and AGS' for commercial games, and that is a big part of what
Selenite brings.




Do you use any third party technology in your
engines?


Absolutely; there are major benefits to using stable third party technology. We’re currently using Ogg/Vorbis, Lua,
AnnoSoft, ScintillaNet, NSIS, "http://www.box2d.org/">Box2D, Subversion and of course DirectX.




What features does Selenite have?


The main feature of Selenite is to remove as much drudgery as possible between a game concept and resources, and a completed game.


Selenite presents the developer with a basic world, formed out of rooms; and within the rooms exist actors; actors can be anything from scenery, to sound emitters to full interactive
characters.


Selenite also provides the following features:


  • event driven scripting
  • subversion integration
  • integrated one-click installer maker with dependencies; share your game the moment you've got something to share.
  • a physics enabled world
  • copy and paste ability of elements at every level of design.
  • WYSIWYG design concepts
  • a traditional adventure inventory
  • integrated dialogue choice system
  • XML based project storage; know that your project data is parsable should you want to process it with external tools.
  • spatially aware audio system
  • a class/instance architecture to allow component design.
  • a robust scripting API with waitable functions for ease.
  • programmable shaders
  • localization editor for multiple languages, auditing dialogue and integrating voice talent.
  • skinnable user interface
  • video/cutscene system
  • multiple output platforms: Windows PC/Web/OS X (with Flash, iPhone and XBox360 forthcoming)
  • game object centric resource system; no resource duplicates or file name conflicts ever again, due to cryptographic hashing of resource data.
  • game project local resource cache; no linkage to external resource import source.
  • integrated instructions/tutorial system
  • feedback system; users can provide voluntary feedback in the field through the game over HTTP to a web CGI
  • error reporting system; users may report errors to you with a concise actions journal to better diagnose issues.
  • statistical tools, script code line counter; code distribution stats and class/instance ratio
To emphasize the simplicity of Selente; the C++ Win32 engine is only about 6,000 lines of code in its completed state. It’s a testament to third party library usage and keeping things
restrained and elegant.



What does Selenite do that your other engines
haven’t?


It allows us to build games, really, really fast; it is as if developing a game has become just another application. I can sit down, pop open Selenite and load my game project, and just start
working away at it; no lengthy compilations. It does the hard work and lets me concentrate on adding gameplay features.




What challenges have you had to overcome whilst developing
Selenite?


First off, Selenite has been our fastest developed engine, with development starting Jan 10, 2009 and being feature complete around July 2009. Also factor that in we developed a good portion of
Morning's Wrath 2, and STATIC: Investigator Training during this time.


The biggest challenge when developing Selenite has been to create a really good game design system. In game development tools are key and I had to deal with the age old question:


“an external editor that exports to an engine? or an engine with a built-in editor?”


I decided to go for an external editor; I didn't need the editor (which is a huge part of the time spent on Selenite) mucking up what could be a very small and elegant engine. Given our goals for
having multiple engines for various platforms, keeping the engine light was essential. A lot of the groundwork for Selenite was laid in the Malathedra engine; in short, how to represent a game
entirely as data, without needing to dig into real code for each game.




Would you licence out Selenite for other developers?


Absolutely; we have plans for an early 2010 roll-out to early adopters; and we've still got some slots open if anyone serious indie developers are out there.




Development

Describe the process of developing a typical EDI game, how
do you start?


Once we've decided on what the game is about; how to lead into it, what you'll do in the game and how it will end; we work to flesh it out in extreme detail. We write a design document which
meticulously details the flow of the game and what can be done in it, because "if it isn't in the design document, it's not in the game", a common motto around here. This is also a point where we
'assetize' the game, to create an asset and deliverables list, mainly for art and other things, sometimes sound and music.


Then we go hunting for folks (many times in the GameDev.net help wanted forum) who are interested in working on the game; everyone from volunteers looking for their name in the credits to
contractors making a couple hundred up front. I then coordinate all of the resource producers, making sure things are done in the proper order and to spec. I usually integrate assets into the game,
as I tend to program alone these days.


We set realistic deadlines and adjust features and timelines as necessary to maintain quality and keep close to our intended deadlines. Once we have elements worth showing we begin to leak
information to the game press via e-mail press releases.


Once we reach a 'feature complete' stage we begin the polishing stage and get the game sent off for an initial round of usage and bug testing; we have a small group of dedicated folks that beta
our games, we've recently named it 'The Copper Group' and there is a Google group dedicated to it so we can communicate easily.




EDI games are RPG focussed, what is it that excites you
about RPG games?


I'd say we're about half adventure and half RPG; what really excites me about RPG is the focus on gameplay mechanics and action; rather than just predetermined story common in adventure games.
Certain stories need some heart pumping action; and a lot of gamers like that, so we try to cater to them as well.




Which games – past and present – inspire you
to make the games you do?


For the past, games like the Kings Quest series, Diablo, the Monkey Island series and Phantasmagoria, have all been heavy hitters for my inspiration. Modern day, I've taken some cues from Gish;
Gears of War, Penumbra and The Lost Crown.




How important do you think the story is in your
games?


Story is very important in our games; it is there to convey emotion and build an understanding with the player; to personally invest them. We also try to let the player draw their own conclusions
at points, sometimes saying too much is bad - when it comes to story what the player can imagine is almost always better than what you can fabricate.




Does story come first, second or is it developed
hand-in-hand with the gameplay?


It really depends on the game; but for our adventure and adventure/RPG games story always comes first, as it is such a large part of the game. We're working on some casual titles which don’t
really have any story, so there’s the contrast.




Your games often focus around one or a few select
characters, how much time do you put into the background, dialog and development of these characters in the development process?


There is often way more backstory than we can practically get in game; this was particularly the case in Morning's Wrath. We have mounds of stuff which didn’t make the cut, but it serves as
good material to use in subsequent games. We've never been good with 'lots of zany characters' kinds of games, we try to keep things relatively solitary; most of our games, notably Morning's Wrath
and Malathedra have some heavy undertones in them if you look deep enough.





How do you test your ideas, stories and gameplay before
committing to them full-time?


For stories, I usually bounce them off of gamers; and if I hear 'wow that sounds awesome' I consider it a hit. We try to keep fairly restrained in our gameplay innovation; especially in games
where it isn't the focus (e.g. adventure games). For Morning's Wrath and the like, user testing was really the only way to insure it worked.




Once you’re past the “fun” bit of
development, how do you go about polishing the games and seeing them through to completion?


Oh yes, 'the hard part'! The only thing that really keeps me going is that I have a game to deliver - not delivering is not an option! In addition to delivering, it's gotta be good, because
otherwise no one is going to purchase it. So really, the drive to finish games and create a quality product keeps my nose to the grind stone. I know it is notorious for indie game developers to lose
interest in projects and early on it was the same for me, but once I started treating it like a business instead of a hobby and committed my life to it is when I was able to justify the long hours
and tedious work.




Studio

When you started EDI games, did you intend to self-publish
your games?


When I started, my only thought was 'can I actually create and sell a commercial game', the idea seemed ludicrous to most people I spoke with and not having ever sold anything before the
implications were scary. I knew however that, assuming I could hack it, this is what I wanted to do.




How important are digital distribution channels to an
indie studio like EDI? Which channels do you currently use and what are planning to use?


Digital distribution is all we do; though admittedly we haven't got into many channels yet. We have used Game Tap and do most of our selling through "http://home.plimus.com/ecommerce/">Plimus which has opened many reseller doors to us.




Does being an indie studio give you the ability to do
things that the larger studios aren’t able to?


Absolutely; we're able to develop the games we'd like to develop; with budgets that are very very realistic. The flop of a single title doesn't mean the doors close.




Does being an indie studio offer any special challenges
that other larger studios don’t face?


The cash flows are much, much smaller - we can always do with more liquid assets and that is what we're trying to maximize now.





How much of your personal finance goes into EDI? Is EDI a
full-time venture to you?


EDI Games is currently able to support 90% of its financial needs - almost all of what we make is re-invested back into the company to create subsequent games. EDI Games is still a part-time gig
for me, but I easily put 40 hours into it most weeks.




Have you been subject to piracy as an Indie
developer?


Absolutely!




How did you detect it?


Funnily enough, for Malathedra, we experienced a dreaded issue - some pirates modified the games resources in an attempt to make it smaller. However, in doing so, they broke the game! This
breakage created a particular issue which didn't exist in the non-pirated retail version; we actually had folks who pirated the game come to our forums looking for a solution; it was a bad side of
humanity.




Did you attempt to prevent it?


Short of being draconian there is no way to really prevent piracy and even then it is rarely successful; we think it is better to focus our efforts on honest customers.




The future

Morning’s Wrath 2 is in development –
what’s the game about this time around?


First and foremost; Morning's Wrath 2 is going to be a very fun, very polished experience. If you enjoy story, and battle gameplay you're going to love it.


From a story perspective; Princess Morning has restored peace to her kingdom but due to her illness from the mana well she's turned rule of the kingdom to those she deems 'better' for the job. The
mana poisoning is killing her and she has (outwardly) come to terms with this. However, as in Morning’s Wrath 1 her mentor Haliphen the wizard will show her that to just lay down and die isn't
an option as he sets her on a quest to discover the The Northern Altar.




How does it differ to Morning’s Wrath?


Morning's Wrath 2 will have a much more casual approach; you'll have more freedom to engage in the story; or just wreak havoc on enemies. With that being said, we'll also delve way more into
Morning's personality; we didn't much get to know her mind in MW1, but in 2, she's been through a lot from the mana poisoning, and she's gonna soften a bit... and the outcome is going to be pretty
unexpected I think.




Do you have anything you’d like to say about
Morning’s Wrath 2, the development of it, the lessons learned from previous games and anything you’re proud of about the new game?


Both STATIC and Morning's Wrath 2 are our '3rd generation' games and one thing they both exhibit is a massive discipline for development, planning and time management. In the old days, I'd just
half bake a story and start in on some graphics; these days, the story gets hammered out first and then it gets put into production, so there aren't many mistakes and surprises.


I am particularly proud of the artwork in Morning's Wrath 2, we managed to get an industry veteran Mathew Skutnik, previously of Cyberlore Studios to
do the environmental art and a newcomer, Alexander Zubov to do some additional scenery; they're both responsible for the game looking really nice at this point.


Another great aspect is the physics system we get from Selenite; I decided that almost any new game needs physics and using physics for gameplay and spells in MW2 is turning out to be awesome,
leading to very dynamic gameplay and lots of fun.




When’s Morning’s Wrath 2 due to be
published?


We were hoping to get it out for the holiday season 2009, but that didn’t happen; Morning's Wrath is our flagship IP and it needs to be really, really good so we're going to take our
time on it so we can deliver a quality product. I would expect it early 2010, but for Morning's Wrath in particular, it'll be done when it's done.




What plans do you have to jump into the realm of online
games, social media and microtransactions – the “hot topics” in game development?


Absolutely; we're currently probing the web casual market and all the fun that goes with it. We have a secretive partnership with another developer in the co-creation of a Facebook game as
well.


You can expect to see a few free-to-play casual web games (Selenite based) from us in early to mid 2010, where our model will likely be ad-based; and we plan to have Facebook integration for
scores and other achievements. We're also working on fleshing out how we can best use microtransactions for dynamic content in our games... and we're also planning to offer small-fee ($4.95 to $1.95)
downloadable versions of our web games, for those who wish to play offline; again with Selenite it is a breeze for us to do that.




What are your thoughts of the future of EDI games –
what platforms will you work with, what ideas are you wanting to explore?


Our 2009 and 2010 goals have been (and still are) to create more, better quality games, with new and varied IP's to increase our product catalogue. This also means touching other platforms to
capture audiences and revenues from those areas; the web, OS X, Facebook, iPhone, XBLA. We've got some ambitious goals, but so far our plans have been really effective with proof from our past
record. A major part of this was to stabilize our technology and to get onto a system we can grow, instead of re-invent. STATIC has proved that our system not only works, but also works very
efficiently.





Wrapping Up

What role has GameDev.net provided to you during your time
as a member there?


GameDev.net was the community where I really started to understand the game development community at large; it was a place to get great feedback on my games and be recognized.




What resources do you recommend for developers such as
yourself?


Well, my Journal on GameDev.net for one; it has some very no-nonsense articles on it pertaining to engine development. I also found the programming articles to be particularly helpful when I was
just starting out. The help wanted forum can be very handy for finding like-minded help on your next game project.




Are there any resources you’d wish existed for
developers like yourself?


I have always wished that GameDev.net was less of a hobby focused resource and more of an indie developer resource with more things like the Developer Showcase to urge developers to finish games
and provide more avenues to turning those games into sales.




Finally, do you have any advice or information you’d
like to pass on to game developers based on your experiences so far?


Each and every person who has dreamed of being a game developer has the potential to be one; it just takes time, patience and the undying will to succeed.




You can catch up with the latest news and buy their games by visiting their website or by following Raymond and EDI Games on "http://twitter.com/EDIGames">Twitter @EDIGames. Developers interested in licensing EDI’s Selenite engine can contact EDI via email at "mailto:Raymond@EDIGames.com">Raymond@EDIGames.com








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