While the idea of the “gaming auteur” is a relatively recent concept thanks to modern creators such as Hideo Kojima, Taro Yoko and Goichi Suda, those of you who have been gaming for as long as I have will doubtless be able to name some “big names” from much earlier in the evolution of the medium.
Many of these names were associated with Sierra, a company established at the very dawn of computer gaming history in 1979 that became primarily known for its adventure games — though this was far from the only type of software they put out.
One of Sierra’s most beloved franchises from “back in the day”, was Quest for Glory, a series of five games that offered an engaging blend of point-and-click adventuring, role-playing game mechanics and a pun-tastic sense of humour. These were the creation of Lori Ann and Corey Cole, a married couple who, between them, displayed considerable flair for both game design and entertaining writing.
In 2018, the Coles brought us Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption, a long-awaited spiritual successor to Quest for Glory that featured the pair’s iconic blend of good humour and solid design. Now, in the year of Quest for Glory’s 30th anniversary, development has begun on a new Hero-U title, so I took some time to chat with Corey about its influences, what the pair learned from the previous game, and how we can expect to be enjoying our Summer Daze at Hero-U.
The Coles’ Hero-U setting is a light-hearted take on popular fantasy tropes. The action unfolds in the titular university, where young people learn to be heroes of various types — be they fighters, wizards or “disbarred bards”; rogues to you and me.
In Summer Daze at Hero-U, you have the opportunity to play as two very different characters who each have their own unique takes on the unfolding action — as well as their own objectives to explore. And within these two distinct ways to play are a variety of different scenes to witness, providing a real feeling of a living world that you and your character just happen to be part of.
“Tilly Appleberry is a half-Elf who appears to be a young girl, but is actually more mature,” explains Corey, speaking of the first character; the option players should pick if they want a more light-hearted romp. “She was adopted by an herbalist and healer, but Tilly has always had a mischievous nature. She is always trying to work out angles and tricks, but never in a mean way. She likes making friends, and certainly finds some interesting ones at Hero-U – Mooella the Minotaur, Sitari the Katta musician, and more. Tilly’s path is like Tom Sawyer’s – trying to connive others into doing her work. But it isn’t that easy.
“Ifeyo Kinah is very different,” continues Corey, explaining the game’s contrasting approach to the second character’s more serious, challenging adventure. “He grew up in Yoruba in NW Fricana. In his culture, men normally take active roles. In earlier times, they were hunters and builders. Women traditionally have more supportive and creative roles. Today many of the men are merchants, often selling wares crafted by the women. Only women tend to develop magical talent, which they sometimes use to create magical fabrics and carvings.
“But Ifeyo has never been comfortable with the idea of ‘get out and do things,'” he adds. “He spent much of his time as a youth among the women of his community, and recently he has felt the call of magic. With some misgivings, his family sponsored him into the Magic class at Hero-U.
“Ifeyo is out to prove that he is a real Wizard, and that he belongs in the Magic class,” says Corey, concluding his explanation of the characters and challenges players will encounter in Summer Daze. “He will get ample chance to prove that as he not only has to complete his coursework, but he also gets assigned the task of running the Harvest Festival. In case that’s too easy, he will be called on to save the school from a magical threat.”
The aim for the Hero-U series as a whole, much like Quest for Glory, has always been to blend disparate thematic and mechanical elements together to create games with broad appeal, but the ways that initial release Rogue to Redemption and the upcoming Summer Daze go about this very differently.
“Our plan for Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption was to make a modest game with relatively simple top-down graphics,” Corey tells me. “We thought of it as a ‘roguelike with story.’ However, we changed that plan rapidly due to fan requests, team changes, art, and technical issues. In the end, we built a far more ambitious game with huge 3D environments, 3D animated characters, a massive script, and a full RPG skill development and combat system. As a result, it completely blew out our original budget and schedule estimates.”
It’s fair to say that Rogue to Redemption had a healthy amount of goodwill built up well before it was released thanks to the Coles’ past track record, and this was reflected in the project’s Kickstarter, which comfortably met its $400,000 target. The project was by no means an easy ride to bring to fruition, though.
“We came to Kickstarter because multiple fans encouraged us to give it a try,” Corey tells me. “Our main goal was to raise awareness that we were making a new game, and to reconnect with our fanbase. Funding the game was secondary; we had several less ambitious projects lined up in case we failed to reach the crowdfunding goal. We still hope to do some of those!
“We were quite naïve about crowdfunding,” he continues, “but we were bolstered by a number of very passionate fans of our previous games, especially of Quest for Glory. We’ve since learned that Kickstarter has very little built-in audience – Most pledges come from fans brought to the site by each project. A relatively small number of these become serial crowdfunders for other projects.”
This is a challenge for a lot of modern independent developers; although Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms free smaller studios from the shackles of corporate life under a publisher, they still have to actually attract and curate an audience to get the budget they require. Even when you’re an established name, you can’t just rely on “if you build it, they will come”.
“We learned that most large game projects use Kickstarter for publicity and some of their funding, but also rely on other sources,” continues Corey. “The poster child for Kickstarter is Broken Age, originally Double Fine Adventure. Double Fine asked for $400,000 and raised $3.3 million, but the actual game costs may have run as high as $8 million. They raised the additional funds from their other games, and possibly equity sources. Eventually Double Fine was acquired by Microsoft and added to the Xbox team.
“Huge MMO’s like Star Citizen and Crowfall raised relatively modest amounts – by MMO standards – on Kickstarter, but then massively increased their funding with equity investments and continued crowdfunding on their websites,” he adds.
“We’ve done the same, but in a much more modest way. Crowdfunding paid about half the cost of developing Rogue to Redemption. The rest is personal and outside equity investment.”
In the case of Summer Daze at Hero-U, the Coles have taken a much more conservative approach, scaling back the scope of the project without compromising its overall vision. In this way, they’re able to realise their ambitions for the overall setting and the characters of the game without necessarily getting bogged down in time-consuming and expensive technical aspects.
“We are very proud of the game we made,” says Corey, referring to Rogue to Redemption, “and it’s getting great reviews from players, but we needed to rein in our plans and expectations for the next game. We’re focusing on a smaller number of 2D scene backgrounds and characters. We’ve kept in the story and character development, the Hero-U setting, and some role-playing mechanics. But Summer Daze is more structured and controlled than Rogue to Redemption. We’re also reusing as much of the technology as we can from the previous game.”
With this in mind, Summer Daze unfolds more like a visual novel or dating sim than a traditional role-playing game — though even in the short demo currently available on itch.io, it’s clear that this is going to be a very replayable affair with lots of different possible scenes rather than more discrete, linear “routes” to follow.
“We played a little of Persona 3, and like the way it balances story and RPG play,” explains Corey. “We also looked at some Japanese visual novels to see what they did with illustration and story. In the past, we played many JRPGs, but they are a completely different game category.”
So did those Japanese games and visual novels have much of an influence on the overall design for Summer Daze, then?
“We are not experts on Japanese games, but we keep up with the news,” says Corey. “Small, story-based games make a lot of sense for people who have limited play-time. We aren’t out to imitate any particular game, but it felt like the right time to make a smaller game suitable for play in short sessions. Summer Daze at Hero-U is our way of offering short-session game play within the epic Hero-Universe.”
And what about Western influences? The visual novel has grown considerably in popularity outside of Japan over the course of the last 5-10 years or so, so have any particular titles caught the Coles’ respective eyes in this regard?
“Dream Daddy and Choices use small events to build a story that is different for every player and in each play-through,” says Corey, referring to the “dad dating simulator” developed by popular YouTubers Game Grumps, and Pixelberry’s popular free-to-play mobile visual novel platform respectively. “Dream Daddy is also character story and relationship-based, something we’ve always tried to do in our games.
“For Summer Daze,” he continues, “we came up with an episodic approach that let players choose on which relationships to focus. Long Live the Queen gave us some ideas on how to meaningfully tie an RPG stat system to a story-based game.”
The latter game, if you’re unfamiliar, is a notoriously brutal Princess Maker-inspired title from Hanako Games (of Magical Diary fame) in which you take on the role of a young, cute queen as she attempts to not die in the most hideous ways possible during her reign, and perhaps find romance along the way. But only if there’s time among all the death-defying. It’s a wonderful game, and knowing that the Coles have played and appreciated it should give anyone interested in Summer Daze confidence that the pair very much know what they’re doing.
“We aren’t following a formula here,” explains Corey. “Summer Daze at Hero-U isn’t a dating simulator. Anyone who has played our previous games – such as Quest for Glory, Shannara, or Rogue to Redemption – will recognise Lori’s character-centric writing style. We’re trying to put the essence of an adventure game into the more compressed format of a visual novel or simulator. We’re also adding some RPG elements in a stat system and a few combat encounters.”
Part of the distinctly “adventure game” feel that the Coles are trying to incorporate into Summer Daze is the idea of puzzles. But we’re not talking pixel-hunting moon-logic “use clamp on rubber ducky” old-school adventure game puzzles here — Summer Daze, like its predecessor, has been designed around the concept of “characters as puzzles”.
“We’re still working on the character challenges in Summer Daze, so let’s look back at Rogue to Redemption,” begins Corey when I quiz him about what exactly this concept means. “Your character, Shawn O’Conner, is a puzzle in himself. He lives with his mother; his father has been gone since Shawn was a baby. As the game proceeds, Shawn learns more about his own past and why others are interested in him.
“Then there are the classmates – Katie, Esme, Sosi, Thomas, and Joel,” he continues. “They each have their own backstory and goals. If Shawn wants to make friends with one of them, the player needs to figure out what drives that character. In effect, you aren’t just solving Shawn’s quests – you’re solving Katie’s, Esme’s, and so on. Your relationship with that character can range from hostile to best friends, and even lovers. Rogue to Redemption isn’t a dating simulation, but that’s an aspect of the game.
“This all goes back to our idea of story,” he adds. “We feel that the best stories revolve around the characters in them. When we want to come up with an adventure game puzzle, we don’t ask ‘what interesting way can the player use these two items?’ We ask ‘what do those characters need, and how can the player make a difference in their lives?’ That leads to more organic and interesting puzzles than trying to put two boards together to make a bridge.”
With this in mind, Summer Daze isn’t a game you can especially “optimise” a run through, since by the nature of its structure — and by the nature of common sense — you can only be in one place at a time, meaning making most decisions will lock you out of the alternative options for the rest of that playthrough. Even when said decision is as seemingly mundane as who to sit next to during dinner.
“There is no crossover between playthroughs,” says Corey when I ask if the game features any sort of “New Game Plus”-style mechanics for subsequent runs. “The major differences will be where, and with whom, the characters spend their time. Depending on dialogue choices, the player will make friends with different characters and will improve different RPG skills. These come into play later in combat and puzzle challenges. And of course some choices will result in a different Harvest Festival than others. The Festival could be a great success or an equally great disaster. What happens there, and how the other characters react, depends on what the player does throughout the game.”
Despite being, in theory at least, smaller in scope than Rogue to Redemption, it’s clear that Summer Daze has plenty of ambition. It’s also evident that this is a setting that the Coles are very fond of, since it existed as a broader concept on the Web even before Rogue to Redemption was released, and that they would very much like to continue exploring it if this new installment proves successful.
“Summer Daze at Hero-U lets us start exploring the Wizard class a bit more,” explains Corey, referring to the second protagonist Ifeyo Kinah. “Our original plan for Hero-U, years before the Kickstarter, was to start with a Wizard game. We went with the Rogue first because we wanted to explore tactical combat with traps and other Rogue skills, to avoid looking like a Harry Potter clone, and because we felt that animating magical spells might be difficult for our small team.
“Building a team and technology for an underfunded, ambitious project has been a challenge,” he adds, speaking of the risks that working independently presents. “So far we’ve worked exclusively with contract developers, most of them part-time, and located around the world. At Sierra we had our team in one place – We complained when they moved the Quest for Glory 2 artists to a different part of the same large room!
“Sierra also supplied the scripting engine and tools which made it relatively easy to build a complex adventure or RPG,” he continues. “Let’s just say I forgot about the $1 million investment in SCI that was already in place before we made our first game there. Of course, we had Unity, but Unity is not customised for adventure game creation. We had to build our own scripting and other tools.
“Making games is never easy under the best circumstances, and it’s a lot harder for a low budget indie trying to make quality games,” he concludes. “We’ve managed it, but it’s very hard both to develop a high-end game and to find an audience for it once it’s done.”
It’s clear there’s a lot of passion and dedication going into Summer Daze and the Hero-U project as a whole, and that sort of enthusiasm very much deserves an audience. So be sure to drop by the (now-concluded) Kickstarter page to find out a bit more about the new game, try the short demo for yourself, and perhaps show your belated support for the project over on Backerkit when the page launches in the next few days.
Thanks to Keith at Transolar for setting up the interview, Corey Cole for the insightful answers, and Liana Kerzner for putting me in touch with these fine folks in the first place!
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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