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The developers over at Telltale Games were kind enough to answer a few questions via email about their game, Bone: The Great Cow Race, which is nominated for Excellence in Audio.
Who are you and how were you involved in Bone: The Great Cow Race?
Dave Grossman: I was the lead designer and head writer on Bone: The Great Cow Race.
Heather Logas: I was a designer, along with Dave Grossman, on Bone: The Great Cow Race.
Randy Tudor: I was the lead programmer on The Great Cow Race (and Out from Boneville).
David Bogan: I’m the art director/lead animator. I’m basically responsible for driving the art team to reproduce Jeff Smith’s visions in 3D form and to create an animated world that keeps to the spirit of the comics.
What were some of the difficulties and advantages to working with an already established world and story?
Dave Grossman: Working with an established world and/or story gives you a huge head start, but sometimes the existing elements conflict with the usual goals of an interactive medium. The Great Cow Race is an excellent example: In this game there’s a race, a really big deal of a race, a climactic moment so important that it gets to be the title of the story. Most of what the player does for the first three-quarters of the game is done in anticipation of the running of this race. The story, unfortunately, calls for the player to lose the race, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Losing the race is a perfectly reasonable thing to have happen in a comic book, but it’s not so great for a game. It was an interesting challenge to design the gameplay in such a way that the player would feel good about this.
Heather Logas: I’d say the biggest difficulties just came from our own determination to get everything “right”. We wanted the game to be a good reflection of the story, characters and world. We wanted it to feel authentic, like someone who loved the comics would be able to start the game and feel right at home. We worked very hard to make sure all the characters looked good and animated well, and that the voices were the right ones for the characters. There are also a number of advantages to working with an already established world like this. This is a world which really sparks your imagination, and which is fun to just be in. So we got an opportunity to take these characters we already loved and this world which was already great and add to it and flesh it out. Having an already established story to work with doesn’t actually stifle your creativity; it just gives you a great framework to start with.
David Bogan: From an art perspective, we had pretty low poly counts for the Bone games since they were going to be downloadable online, so trying to capture the beauty of Jeff Smith’s art in low poly 3D form was quite a challenge. It is all about cutting the right corners and capturing the essence of the characters and their environments.
What’s been the hardest part in adapting the graphic novel into a game?
Dave Grossman: Bone is an epic saga, and as such it has a lot of quiet moments where characters are just talking to each other at length while they prepare for bed or take a long journey in a cart. It’s a story where things simmer for long periods. This stuff is critical for establishing the right mood, but it can be difficult to work it into a game, where the player is used to being active at all times. It’s another common example of how the needs of one medium do not necessarily line up with the needs of another.
Heather Logas: The hardest thing about adapting a non-interactive story to an interactive game is just that – the interactivity. A game is not a linear novel and it can be a challenge to figure out how best to tell the story in an interactive medium. If you don’t have anything to add to the story by making it interactive, or if you can’t find a unique perspective that you can’t get through the original non-interactive version, then there isn’t really any point in making the game. One example from the Great Cow Race is that we let you play as all three Bone cousins and see the story through their eyes almost simultaneously. This is something the comic just can’t do.
David Bogan: Again, for me the hardest part was getting as close as we could to the beautiful 2D art that Jeff created. The characters’ personalities and emotions are so clear in Jeff’s work that those are fairly easy for us to replicate in our games, but translating his 2D world into 3D is trickier.
What technique is used for animation? Key-framing? Mocap?
David Bogan: Straight out, computer key-framed animation was used for the Bone games. I think motion capture would seem out of place. The most important thing to me about animating for the Bone games is strong posing and staying true to physics, but I like having the ability to bend the rules where it’s called for, to keep the animation cartoony and true to the fantasy world.
What are some of the advantages to the use of episodic content? Disadvantages?
Dave Grossman: Doing things episodically makes a lot of sense in the case of Bone, a story which is already structured that way (many comic books are). And it certainly makes things more manageable for a small developer. I struggle to think of a disadvantage, but perhaps there’s this: It can be difficult to achieve a grand sense of scale in a game with a limited number of locations. We haven’t yet reached the part of the Bone saga where that would present a problem, but I can see it coming down the line.
Heather Logas: There’s been a lot of talk about the business advantages and disadvantages of episodic content, and not nearly enough about the design perspective of making this unique kind of game. I think a huge advantage from the designer’s perspective is the ability to iterate on your ideas and explore new ideas relatively quickly. In a huge multi-year project, you design things from the outset and at some point it’s all locked in. You can’t add new ideas without feature creep and production types hitting you with big sticks. In episodic games, since the turn-around is so quick, you have a lot of opportunities to try things. Also the risk is lower to each individual episode than in a large game, so it is easier to put something weird in one episode and see if people like it. It lets you be a bit freer with your creativity.
The flip side of this is that, since the episodes turn around so quickly, you constantly need to pump out new ideas and concepts. You have to stay on your toes and be able to think across several episodes at once. You might be working on episode 6, but someone from the art team comes to you with a question for episode 4 and you have to be able to actually remember what the heck it is they’re talking about so you can give them an answer. So it can be mentally exhausting. This was less of a problem with The Great Cow Race than it is in our Sam & Max games because the schedule was different, but even with Cow Race, we got started right after Out from Boneville finished up. There isn’t much downtime.
With such an established visual design thanks to the graphic novel, was there any leeway at all for the look of the game?
David Bogan: Our rule was, if Jeff Smith is happy, then we’re happy. That didn’t necessarily mean everything in our game had to look exactly like it does in the comic, especially when creating new content (like the characters in the fairgrounds). It just meant that everything we created had to feel like it was part of Jeff’s world. Keeping Jeff in the loop and involved in the decision process was very important and proved to be the right way to recreate the look of Bone.
Were there any problems during development that you would like to share as a caution to other developers?
Dave Grossman: Despite the fact that it’s a very small game, it is nevertheless a little bigger than we had initially intended for it to be, and we were overextended trying to get it done. Every game ever made seems to have this problem – you’d think we’d all eventually learn....
Heather Logas: I think the biggest problem we had with Cow Race was we reacted too strongly to certain criticism from Out from Boneville. Bone: Out from Boneville was a pretty short game, and we were very sensitive to people complaining about that. As a result, we overcompensated with The Great Cow Race. Cow Race is a much bigger game than we probably should have signed on for given the time we wanted to complete it in. We gave ourselves roughly the same amount of time to complete Cow Race as Out from Boneville, but the game is maybe twice as long. This resulted in the schedule slipping and some people working some gnarly hours, which is something we try hard at Telltale to avoid. Everyone was really dedicated to making this game fantastic and it really shows in the final product, but we probably shouldn’t have made it quite as big as we did.
Randy Tudor: I also think the biggest problem we had was the scope of the game. We knew that many people felt that Boneville was too short and too easy. We tried hard to address those problems when we were developing Cow Race, and we overcompensated a bit, as it were, and ended up with a design that was a little more ambitious than our schedule would allow. The result was that we ended up releasing the game a bit late, and it didn’t quite make it to the level of polish that I would have liked.
What was used to make the game and what tools aided in development?
Randy Tudor: We use an internally developed tool to make all of our games. Our artists use Maya for modeling and animating, but everything else is done in the tool. We can convert everything from animations to textures, create character choreography, build walk boxes, and even write interactive dialogs using the same tool. Of course, it has its share of quirks, but it’s really pretty amazingly versatile and easy to use, and it allows us to get a large amount of work done in a short period of time.
What advice would you give to developers looking to use such voiceover animation in their games?
Dave Grossman: Hire professionals. Really. It makes a big difference.
Heather Logas: Yes, please leave casting to the experts! For Out from Boneville we actually tried using all our co-workers and friends’ contacts and do casting in-house. It was a nightmare. I mean, it was fun, but it took a ton of time away from development and we didn’t really find many voices we liked. A couple actors that we hired this way we later replaced for The Great Cow Race. When we turned all the casting over to Bay Area Sound, things went so much smoother. They have agencies they work with and have a lot of great, professional voice actors to choose from. We were able to find all our best voices with their help. With existing characters, people get very attached to how they think the characters should sound, so it is important to get high-quality actors who can not only do the voice well, but have good acting ability.
What about the games audio do you think earned Bone: The Great Cow Race its nomination?
Dave Grossman: It could be the great voice acting, or it could be the top-quality music. Probably both!
Heather Logas: I think the voice acting in Bone: The Great Cow Race is superb. We worked closely with Bay Area Sound and Jeff Smith to find the perfect actors for all the characters. They sound great, and they are really good at conveying the proper emotions. The characters in Jeff Smith’s stories are likable because they are very human, and the fact that this comes across so well in our voice acting is a huge success to our game.
And the music is fantastic!! Jared Emerson-Johnson is a freaking genius composer. Each character has their own theme, and some have multiple themes depending on their locations or their emotional state. You really have a sense of what’s going on in the characters’ heads at any given time based on the music alone. My favorites are when you are playing as Smiley Bone, and also the really awesome track that accompanies the Cow Race catapult mini-game. Listen closely to the catapult game music and you can hear Jared singing. I really think Jared’s ability to express emotion and character through music as well as his willingness to experiment with different musical styles is what sets him far apart from many other game composers.
Is there anything else about Bone: The Great Cow Race that you would like to reveal to other developers?
Dave Grossman: It’s fun to play!
Randy Tudor: I think that that we were able to do just about all of the things we set out to do with Cow Race, and I feel very good about the way we responded to our fans. I’ve spent my share of time working with development companies that pay little or no attention to the feedback they get from end users, so Telltale’s approach is both refreshing and rewarding.
Heather Logas: I’ve found that working on a licensed game doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to get to be creative or that you won’t get to make something really great. It can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Bone: The Great Cow Race had a lot of love go into it and it really shows in the product. Everyone at the company who has read the whole Bone comic series has become an instant fan, and it’s easy for the team to throw a lot of love at something they really understand and already enjoy.
I think there are two main keys to keeping a game like this fun. The first is to make the interactivity match the license. Bone works great as an adventure game, but would not have been nearly as good as an action/adventure/platformer. Secondly you want to take something that’s already great and find the places where you can expand on the story or tell it in ways that can only be done in an interactive medium.
Bone: The Great Cow Race is my favorite game that I’ve worked on. I’m really pleased with how it turned out and I encourage anyone who loves good stories and fun characters to give it a try.