The Six Ages Team: Jan Pospíšil

Our series of interviews with team members continues with our lead artist, Jan Pospíšil.

What’s your background?

I have a master’s degree in computer graphics programming, but in art I’m self-taught.

How did you get into the industry?

Self-Portrait by Jan Pospíšil

I’ve been full-time freelancing for over 5 years now (I think). At first I posted my portfolio on a bunch of RPG forums and that got me a few hobbyist level jobs in pen and paper RPGs (which is where I would get the majority of work in the following years). Then in short succession Jeff Richard (then of Moon Design, now Chaosium) and Jon Hodgson (Cubicle 7) contacted me for work and I’ve been drawing for them ever since.

I was a big fan of Tolkien and also drew a lot of historical/ancient stuff and both those areas eventually became my “niche.”

When it comes to computer games, I started by modding during my uni studies. Curiously, neither my computer science degree, nor my modding efforts contributed to my first real videogame job – doing art for KoDP and Six Ages. (I have my continued work on pnp Glorantha to thank for that, I believe.)

What was the first gaming product you worked on, and in what capacity?

I have to admit I don’t remember. Unfortunately I lost a backup drive from that time, so there’s no way to check. Most likely it was a few pieces of black and white art for a supplement book by a small publisher.

The first product I consider a career changer was probably the Guide to Glorantha, for which I painted a series of colour plates.

How were you introduced to KoDP

Someone shared a few pictures from their game in a screenshot thread on the TaleWorlds forums. I was immediately interested, because I’ve never seen a game with art like that. Especially intriguing was a scene depicting Grazelanders, who I recognized as Scythian/Pazyryk inspired.

I had to know what this game was about! The concept sounded incredible and I immediately pirated it and spent a few weeks playing it to exhaustion. (Sorry about that! I’ve bought it on several platforms since then.)

How did your art style develop?

Chaotically and slowly. Before I started learning with some semblance of focus (in uni and on), I did everything by feeling and instinct. In a way that felt more free and I was far more daring in those days.

Now I’m mostly trying to get faster and away from aping my favourite artists too much. (Which I definitely did for some products I worked on, like Angus McBride in Glorantha, or Viktor Ambrus on “The One Ring.”)

I did a lot of ink drawing on Six Ages (as opposed to painting), which was very useful training in hindsight. I also practiced horses a lot, that’s always useful.

What was the most challenging part of the project?

The scope of it. Most projects in the past would take up to a few months to finish, followed by a period of crippling doubt (“Is any of this any good?!”), followed by the joy of seeing them in the hands of happy customers. Working on Six Ages meant four years of not being able to talk about anything I was doing, and there was so much of it to do! Definitely a different experience.

What was the best part of the project?

Seeing it all come together and working with the other members.

Reading Robin’s writing where he’d build on the concepts we came up with in preproduction, meeting the characters he created.

Seeing other artists do their thing and thinking: “Oh man, I wouldn’t have thought of that!”

Reading the testers’ experiences playing the game for the first time.

Other than Six Ages or King of Dragon Pass, what’s your favorite computer game?

Can’t easily reduce that to just one, so…

I’ve spent the most time with Mount&Blade:Warband (thousands of hours probably, since 2006).

The best recent game I played is The Witcher 3:Wild Hunt (I’ve been a fan of the Witcher books since childhood).

My “most interesting/innovative” recent game is Exanima – for its unusual physics-based combat system (having 238 hours played on Steam).

The Six Ages Team: Liana Kerr

Although I (David) get to be the public face of the game, nearly two dozen people helped me make it. I’d like to share some of their stories, starting with our Quality Assurance (QA) Lead, Liana Kerr.

What’s your background?

Liana Kerr
Illustration by Ellen Barkin

I dabble in writing and art, and I’ve studied Japanese for several years. I’ve done fan translations of video games and a little professional translation. I have a huge weakness for RPGs, adventure games and sim games, but I have a tendency to lose myself in games, so these days I just play a couple of mobile games that don’t require much time or brainpower. I’m the primary caregiver to my two children, six-year old Milo and one-year old Felix.

How were you introduced to KoDP

Back in college, my boyfriend presented me with a new game for Valentine’s Day. It was perfect: it had gorgeous artwork, engaging writing, a challenging scenario. I played it over and over, creating happy little Ernalda-worshipping Peace clans, exploring Dragon Pass and learning all the lore. And what of the guy who knew me so well that he gifted me a game that I played for years? I married him, of course! (And eventually we had a child who encourages me to “get lots of cows, mama!”)

How did you get into the industry?

I had been following the King of Dragon Pass blog, and I offered to help beta test the iOS version. “I have a good eye for detail,” I told David, in what may have been an understatement. Unfortunately, David already had as many beta testers as he needed. Fortunately, most people are not very good beta testers. I got in on the next round of testing, and as I hadn’t played KoDP for several years I was thrilled to be able to return to the game. Beta-testing KoDP coincided with being pregnant with my older son, and it distracted me from my constant nausea. I ended up filing so many bugs that I was convinced David was sick of this annoying fangirl who kept nitpicking his game! But instead he asked me to help test the iPad version, and sent me an iPad inscribed with “Queen of Dragon Pass.” When he started adding more new content to KoDP, I started working as a freelancer doing more formal QA, and it’s been my dream job ever since!

What was the first gaming product you worked on, and in what capacity?

King of Dragon Pass is the first game I ever worked on professionally. I’ve also worked on fan translations of some Super Famicom RPGs, both as a translator and finding bugs in the patches. (I translated Metal Max Returns several years ago, and three games that haven’t been released yet, Granhistoria, Metal Max 2 and Tenshi no Uta.) Working on Six Ages has made me want to design games myself. Maybe once the kids are older!

What was the most challenging part of the project?

Making the mental transition from “my job is to find bugs” to “my job is to help make this an awesome game.” I had a lot of issues with imposter syndrome and self-confidence, which meant my tendency was to assume that my input wasn’t very valuable. I mean, who was I to contradict David Dunham on a matter of game design, or edit Robin D. Laws’s writing? But the truth was that my position was unique: as a longtime fan of King of Dragon Pass, I approached Six Ages from a player’s point of view, and so I was not only looking for bugs, I was also looking for scenarios that didn’t make sense, outcomes that felt unfair or unsatisfying, or places where a little extra detail would have a big impact on the scene. For example, when another clan creates a song mocking you, I wanted to know exactly what the insult was! (And Robin came through with not one, but several different insults that are chosen randomly each time the scene appears.)

Our neighbors know us for being the last clan to arrive in the valley.So there are a lot of little details in Six Ages that come directly from my experience as a KoDP player and give you a greater sense of connection to your clan. I always wanted my clan to be known for something, as the other clans are, and in Six Ages your actions will give you a reputation. I wanted a little more focus on some of the recurring characters, and now they give unique advice and have a couple more scenes… although if you want them to be heroes, you have to give them those opportunities yourself.

Having my ideas get implemented and my input valued went a long ways towards boosting my confidence, which in turn made me more likely to give my opinion even more freely. I think Six Ages is even better than King of Dragon Pass, and even though I have seen all possible outcomes of every scene in the game, I still enjoy playtesting it. I’m proud to say that some of that depth came from my input, and hope that other KoDP fans love Six Ages as much as I do!

What was the best part of the project?

I got to be there as it all came together. When I started working on Six Ages, Robin had written over a hundred scenes, but the artwork was all placeholders, there was no music, the UI was incomplete and the advisors’s faces were from KoDP. Plus, there were still hundreds of scenes to be coded, and some weren’t written until well into the game’s development. I worked assiduously on testing scenes, but I couldn’t really visualize the eventual outcome. But with every new build of the game, there was some small improvement: for example, the pixelated placeholder art would turn into a pencil sketch with notes on it, which later became a black and white drawing, which eventually blossomed with glorious color. I tested most of the exploration scenes with placeholder art or sketches, so it was gratifying to run into the finished scenes as I played and experience them as they were meant to be seen. When the music was added, Six Ages really started to feel like a game to me, not just a collection of scenes and sliders. By the time I was able to finish the game for the first time, I felt like we had really created something special!

I also just love finding really great bugs. One of my favorites was the bug where another clan would show up to attack you, then parley with you and offer you tribute to end the attack. Compared with game-breaking bugs or bugs that are hard to reproduce, a bug where people show up on your doorstep and offer to give you loot instead of attack you is a sweet bug indeed. It was almost a shame to report it! Any time negative numbers of warriors die, fractions of a cow get traded away, or nonexistent clans show up at my clan borders, my day just gets better and better. What I love best is when I manage to crash the game so badly that I can’t even re-open my saved game. Because that means we can fix it, and no one else will ever lose their game to that same bug. I get territorial about my bugs; once Six Ages is out, no doubt thousands of people playing it will expose some that I didn’t find, and some part of me is always going to feel jealous of the people who find the best bugs.

Other than Six Ages or King of Dragon Pass, what’s your favorite computer game?

I’d have to say Undertale. I like being able to play a game in a peaceful way — I once played through the original Fallout as a pacifist, although I may have taken a potshot at the Overseer in the end — and I was fascinated by its fourth-wall breaking aspects. I especially enjoyed playing a game that treated my decisions with tangible moral weight and permanence, because I couldn’t help contrasting it with my work testing Six Ages. For the sake of seeing if some minor line shows up right, I might systematically kill off every single noble in my clan. (The debug menu offers me nearly a dozen ways to murder people. For example, I can kill off the whole circle, pick out one noble to kill, kill off all the men or women at once, kill off another clan’s leader… And that’s not even getting into the many ways someone can die within the game.) Or I might force a scene repeatedly to test all the branches, meaning that from my clan’s point of view, they’re being attacked by a dinosaur or a Chaos monster ten times a year. Restore from the previous year, and no one even remembers it happened! I feel my sins crawling on my back…

Restores radio buttons (Unlimited, One, None) from the clan questionnaireMy desire to play with some form of moral weight actually inspired one new option for the game. You can still choose to have unlimited restores, which means if something goes wrong you can restart the year with no penalty. But you can also now choose to give yourself just one chance to restore, or you can play the entire game with no ability to restore at all. When you can only turn back time once, or when death is permanent, the impact of every choice you make is magnified. I have beaten the game on Hard mode with no option to restore (without resorting to the debug menu, of course). So it is possible, but it requires patience, diplomacy, careful preparation and the ability to roll with the punches.

Bugs, Part 2

We’ve been using Manuscript (originally Fogbugz) to manage the project, starting during the first week of development in August 2014. Since then, the team and playtesters have created 3412 cases. This breaks down into Manuscript’s categories as:

Donut chart of categories123 Inquiries. This includes playtester feedback and comments, and 75 completed games. I try to do some analysis of each game, to learn where players get stuck and to make sure things are tuned OK. Once in a while this uncovers bugs.

485 Features and 61 Schedule Items. These represent tasks like like “Map Creation,” “iPhone X support” or “Sweep to be sure ChooseLeader is followed by a leader test.” The two categories are pretty similar, but a Feature would probably be passed to QA to check, and a Schedule Item could usually just be marked completed.

2714 Bugs. These are things that didn’t behave as expected. They’re typically fixed, then verified by QA as working correctly. Since we added playtesters over time, we tended not to get a lot of duplicate bugs (though it’s never a problem if we do, since a different report may give insight into reproducibility, and they’re easy to verify).

Overall, we closed 3313 of the 3412 cases. Of the 99 cases not closed, 26 are feedback that I was keeping handy (and probably should close to clean up the project). Most of the rest are issues that we deferred as part of the triage process, (see part 1) or as features that would be nice to have in an update.

Donut chart showing 99% Fixed, 1% Open bugs2695 of 2714 bugs have been closed. A few are still being verified as fixed, or were deferred for an update. (That’s about 1.8 bugs per day over the entire project.)

I don’t really like managing purely by numbers (the way a really large project might have to), but it’s good to see that our gut feeling that the game is solid is also backed by data.

(part 1 of the series on bugs is here)

Bugs, Part 1

I don’t know if this is a dark secret of game developers, but games ship with bugs. Known bugs.

Status and Triage posts from Slack

Part of the late development process is reviewing the bug list to see what most needs fixing. We all hate bugs, but we also love shipping. Not everything has to be fixed before release. The closer we get to making the release build, the stricter the criteria become. We’ve recently deferred a bunch of bugs that we would have fixed when we started the triage process.

Why be so strict? Because many fixes can have unintended consequences. We just discovered a fairly rare bug yesterday, which had been introduced by a change we made last year (which was tested back then and found to work perfectly as designed). Since even a simple bug fix can destabilize the game, we want to make sure any last minute fixes are truly warranted.

At the end of the process, the only bugs to be fixed are those that affect all players, prevent play, or make us look stupid. Most of what we’ve been finding lately have been issues that come up if you have tons of feuds, or when you made certain decisions and then ally a particular clan. These aren’t going to be that common. And even the players who end up doing that won’t be blocked from the game, or find it illogical. My classic “look stupid” bug was a game I saw years ago, where the publisher spelled their own name wrong on the title screen. Luckily we haven’t found anything like that.

But of course, we do want to fix all the bugs. So I’ve been making the fixes in an alternate branch of the code. As soon as everything is locked down in the App Store, we’ll switch over internally and start testing that.

Part 2 of “Bugs”

Release Date

Six Ages: Ride Like the Wind logo

Six Ages: Ride Like the Wind comes to the iOS App Store on 28 June, with preorders starting 21 June. It will sell for US$ 9.99.

We’re currently developing the game for other platforms, and expect to release them next year.

To get a taste of the game, you can watch our launch trailer.

Although we have a build approved for the App Store, we’re still fixing bugs and making small changes. There’s not much time left before launch, so we’re trying to triage issues to make sure they aren’t likely to break anything unexpectedly, and that QA will be able to verify that the change actually works.

We’re also still busy revamping our web site and marketing.

Our plan is that Ride Like the Wind is the first in a series of six related games. You’ll be able to play them in any order, but the idea is that you can continue the story of a clan through the ages.

The designers of King of Dragon Pass, David Dunham and Robin D. Laws, have refined the classic game.

Compared to King of Dragon Pass, play is both simpler and richer. You’ll get to make more decisions in combat, and can appease an assortment of spirits as well as build shrines to your gods. You’ll explore an unknown land about four times as large, and can choose a special action to perform each year. Food production is less complex.

Of course, you will still have advisors with unique personalities, and will follow their stories over multiple generations. Your cows will show your prestige. And you’ll be able to visit the land of the gods.

We’re working hard to do the last final polish, so you’ll be able to enjoy the game at the end of the month!

Tags are Magic

I was going through some playtester comments, one of which noted that diplomacy-related magic wasn’t as useful as it might be. So I did a quick review of the four blessings that seemed like they would relate to diplomacy. And while I’m not sure I was looking for exactly what was reported, it did seem like they could be more important.

Understanding: Helps our dealing with foreignersI’ve mentioned before that scene tags have been very useful. One of the diplomacy-related blessings is called “Understanding.” It’s implemented as

+1 in scenes tagged @foreigners

Diplomatic missions can be sent to a variety of people, so scripts like news_GiveGifts (which reports on simple gift-giving) can’t simply have the tag. But tags can be dynamically added, so making the magic more broadly useful was a matter of

RemoveSceneTag(ThisScene, "@*")    # Any previous dynamic tags
[otherClan.culture = 'other] AddSceneTag(ThisScene, "@foreigners")

Even though it takes two lines of OSL, I like this better than something like

[HasBlessing(ourClan, "Silvertongue")] b += 1

(which another blessing needed) because it affects the entire script, rather than just a specific branch.

The game makes extensive use of tags. The scene compiler uses a few to make sure scripts with very particular conditions are triggered from a single spot. Unit testing uses ten tags so it can set up the right context for running scripts. The UI code checks for tags that determine that a scene needs special elements like a text field. And there are over 100 tags that help categorize scripts, including whether magic applies to them.

Tutorial

One of my goals was to make sure the game had a better tutorial than King of Dragon Pass. Its tutorial was fairly brittle — it was too easy to get off track.

Tip about emissariesWe came up with a different approach, which worked fairly well for explaining all the parts of the game. When you first visit the Relations screen, you get a note explaining it (and to avoid a giant info dump, get more information the next time). There are no exact steps to follow, so the tutorial can’t get confused. And you can learn about a dialog when you get to it, instead of trying to learn everything in a short period. Our playtesters all seemed to like how it worked.

But our playtesters tended to be self-selected as having played King of Dragon Pass. When I added another QA tester who had not played before, and had a friend try out the game, it became apparent that the reactive approach didn’t work well for new players.

Some smaller fixes helped. For example, while the contextual tips served the purpose of a tutorial, they weren’t in the traditional form of a small subset of the game. New players didn’t consider this to be a tutorial. So we renamed our tutorial to “Guides.”

But nothing really helped brand new players get oriented to the game. So I came up with a new design. Rather than try to show you everything (like the King of Dragon Pass tutorial or the Guides), it tries to explain a few topics (particularly things that might be a bit different from other games). It’s even more directed, so you can’t accidentally do the wrong thing. And it hides information, so it’s less distracting.Tutorial Summary

The Tutorial doesn’t go through an entire year, and you can’t continue the game. Its purpose is to give you enough understanding so that when you do begin a real game, things make more sense. And do so interactively, so you can learn by doing.

The context-sensitive Guides are still there, since they cover things the Tutorial doesn’t. And there’s still a quick introduction and a detailed manual.

Right now we’re testing the new Tutorial, but it seems promising so far.

Teaser Trailer

As the game gets closer to release, it’s time to start dividing my time between marketing as well as development. So much has changed since the last time I did that with a new game (it was 1999), but one obvious difference is that games have trailers.

So here’s ours:

This is a “teaser trailer,” which to me means there are no spoilers about  the story. That was a pretty big constraint on selecting art and game play, but I think I managed to get a good selection of artwork in.

My design phase also tried to embrace the fact that the game is very different from the typical game on the market. So the trailer needed to stand out a little, while still being a decent video. This meant no gratuitous animation (lots of trailers these days seem to add animation to static images) and avoiding the portentous announcer voice many trailers have.

Rather than get good at video editing, I found someone who could do that. One thing I did have to figure out was how to actually distribute the video. “Upload to YouTube” isn’t necessarily as simple as saying it, and YouTube has  changed things so that it’s hard to annotate the video with clickable links. (That’s why it helps to subscribe to our YouTube channel, which will let us level up and enable that.) My impression is that YouTube is not at all oriented to game developers (as opposed to game players who want to share their play sessions).

As usual, the product went through several refinements, including QA noticing artifacts in the voiceover track.

It’s nice to be able to show a little more of the game, and it’s going to make it easier to work on the next videos.

P.S. No, we have not announced a release date.

Beta

At last, we’re at beta!

In some ways this is just an arbitrary milestone. “Beta” is a pretty loosely defined term, indicating a point in the software development cycle when we think the game is close to the final product, but still has bugs. We don’t expect a lot of design changes, but things are’t locked down. In fact, I made a change to the main menu screen the day after declaring beta. But the main focus now is getting the game shipped.

That has two main components: finding bugs, and marketing.

inspecting a potOur QA team is still testing (especially since one of the last features added was a new scene), and we’re expanding outside testing to more playtesters (we still have a backlog, but let us know if you’d like to be added to it). I’ve also been running some automated tests, but they can take almost half an hour, so that’s not routine.

We’ll be ramping up marketing more once we have a release date. Given that the game involves exploring a story with some plot twists, we don’t want to give away too much too soon. But we’re starting to plan. We do know that we need to do our first video trailer, and need to find someone to help us make one. (Please contact us if you are available to do video production!)

The other aspect is making sure the game is fun, and the right level of challenge. There’s a lot of emergent story that can be tricky. This is another reason we don’t yet have a target date to release the game.

But overall things are going well. We’re definitely on the road to a release candidate.

A Week of Polishing

Right now we’re finding bugs and tuning the game. What exactly does that mean?

Liana stressed one of the game’s new features (using it as much as possible in a complete game), and wrote up a bunch of issues: it was inconsistent, wasn’t clear enough, didn’t feel like good value for the cost, and felt too generic. So I reviewed what was going on. Some of the inconsistency was actually just feedback and advice that was out of date. I added a new way to see all the effects. There are new side effects to help add value. And there is now the possibility of interactive results instead of a boilerplate response. These are new situations that need to be exhaustively tested, so that’s now on Kati’s plate. Some of these changes needed to be mentioned in the manual, too.

Liana had previously played a game where her main goal was to increase the size of the clan. I had fixed some of the specific bugs this revealed, and also started applying some new consequences and activated a new scene I had written the previous week.

I tracked down and fixed a bug which could make the game unplayable if you made peace with a clan right before it was scheduled to raid you (due to previous events).

Report buttonAnother timing bug (reported by a playtester) had to do with when the followup for an omen occurred. And another was a possible conflict with the seasonal calendar (you might be willing to ignore the harvest, but would your allies?).

One bug had to do with dead emissaries returning with gifts. This seemed like an issue that could happen in scenes other than the one it was reported for, so I swept the entire code and found another six places.

Raided By: NoneOne game had very few raids. I looked at the logs and data, and made some adjustments to what are probably the underlying causes. (Raids look at many factors, such as relative strength and different aspects of inter-clan relationships.)

While playing, I was surprised not to get a relevant bit of advice on one situation. The exact set of advisors makes a huge difference on what advice is given, as does the context in the story, but I ended up changing the priority of one advice type. In theory this is a big change, but I believe it is more in line with how Robin and I used that type. We’ll need to play for a while and make sure you still get good advice.

A conversation with Zack sparked an idea that I need to implement this week.

By the end of the week, there were bugs relating to the new interactive results, so I fixed those.

And there were a number of typos and text edits.

So that’s a fairly typical week of polishing a game which is at the alpha stage.