Although I initially reported on Periscopic’s excellent re-envisioning of the Oregon Trail some time ago, the game managed to garner nearly universal acclaim from gamers and critics alike, most notably indiegames.com who ranked it #19 in the top 20 freeware adventure games of 2007.
It took me a little while, but I managed to get a hold of Periscopic’s co-founder and Head of Conceptual Design (not to be confused with the Head of Impressionistic Design) – Kim Rees. Kim ever so kindly rounded up the crew to give us a peek at how Thule Trail was built from concept to finished product. Much thanks goes to Dino Citraro – Periscopic’s other co-founder – who invited me to ask a few questions about the game in the first place. The sheer craftsmanship put into this game is stunning and is a testament to how the right kinds of collaborative relationships in game development can lead to great things – but I’ll let our Oregonian friends over at Periscopic describe how that works…
Chris - Was the concept generated in-house, or did Thule have some specific ideas that were integrated into the work? Not a lot of work has been done using retrogaming as a subject, and it’s surprising for most to see a major corporation (Thule) take computer games on as an advertising uh.. vehicle (ignore the pun).
Kim – The idea actually came from TDA Advertising, our partner in this project. The original concept came from Thule’s existing “road trip” campaign. TDA thought it would be fun to parody the “original road trip.”
Chris - What kinds of collaborative opportunities did TDA offer you (and vice-versa) during the development process?
Kim – We’ve worked with TDA for several years and have a great collaborative relationship with them. They were great for honing the personality, the aesthetic and the humor of the game. Since it was their original idea they had specific ideas about how the finished product should look and perform. They communicated these to us at the start of the project and we used them as the basis of our interactive design phase. We came back to them with the game logic and interface designs and we went back and forth a little bit to tweak them, but for the most part, it was a pretty smooth process. They had many great ideas that couldn’t be incorporated into the final game, and sadly, some of their best ideas were relegated to Phase 2 due to budget restrictions.
Chris - What kinds of inspirations went into Thule Trail? Oregon Trail is an obvious one, but were there other influences that gave the game the overall look and feel?
Kim – We took cues from other simple games like Microsoft’s Ski Free. That’s another addictive “game” that has painfully simple graphics and audio. We worked hard to pare things down to their essence.
Also, TDA was largely influential in the development of the game. It was their original idea and they wrote most of the dialog. They also had very strong ideas about how the game should look, its pace, and personality. We spent most of our time developing the game logic, the point structure, and the overall playability.
Chris - How did your development team capture aesthetic/gameplay so authentically? Were there specific design choices that went into developing the music (great mono-voice melodies!) and 16-color dithered artwork?
Kim – Conceptually we wanted to stay as true as possible to the original game, so prior to any development we downloaded the emulator and captured all of the interface screens. We then used that as the basis for our interactive design and storyboards.We focused on the nostalgia of the game; with those of us who had played the game in our youth making sure we identified what we felt was most compelling, how it made us feel, and how we felt we could best bring that into a modern-day scenario.
We found an illustrator here in Portland who actually specializes in pixel illustrations. He created all the images: people, cars, landscapes, skylines, etc. We tried working with these at 16 bit, but found that 8 bit was the only way we could achieve the correct aesthetic.We worked with a sound designer in New York City, Sean Eden, to create audio cues that would be reminiscent, yet also modern. We gave him an audio “palette” and he ran with it.
Chris - Do any ideas come to mind that couldn’t be fit into the final release of the game? Did it begin as a different kind of project?
Kim – Yep, we wanted to have Easter Eggs in the game that would allow people to choose different cars, acquire Mario-type bonuses and tools (like a rocket launcher), and see funny animations. These were all relegated to an as-of-yet unfunded Phase 2.
Chris - What kind of testing process did the game go through before release? Did the game “play” and entertain as you hoped, or was gameplay tweaked significantly later on?
Kim – We did a lot of play testing throughout the development of the game. The logic was the toughest part to hone. By staying true to the original game, we had to make sure all the choices gave similar results at the end of the game.
For instance, the choices of profession impact the money you have to buy goods, and we needed to calculate how quickly items should expire, and how expensive goods should be. Additionally, we needed to gauge how quickly car morale should deteriorate, and what influences the trip would have on this. If you pick up one hitchhiker, it affects the car’s mood in a different way than another. That was a major focus during our testing and revisions.
Chris - Was it a complicated design to implement in Flash? What kinds of challenges/benefits did the Flash IDE provide during the development process?
Kim – Aside from the complexities of dealing with asynchronous events, and the logic problems associated with a multifaceted game, the most interesting challenge was LO-FI-ing flash while keeping the right vibe—one that is true to the fact that this is current, not simply a product of the 80s.
Many of the tools within Flash are about making an interface or animation smooth, clean, and polished. In Thule Trail, it’s exactly the opposite. Everything, whether audio, user interaction, movement, or rendering is guileless. Creating something that feels right within this idiom requires rethinking what your ideal feel is and working within a totally different mindset.
Chris - Finally – what’s the weather like in Portland? It’s been damned cold up here (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) …. it was -30F last week for several days. I drove through Portland last year on a trip to northern CA, and it was a stunning city.
Kim – Yikes! Well, it’s a colder than normal winter here in Portland, but that only means near freezing temps. It’s actually snowed a few times which is unusual. Mostly the winters are a solid shade of grey for about 6-8 months. It helps us stay focused on our development, but does nothing for tanning our complexion.
Chris - My thanks to you and the team for taking the time to answer everything. I’m sure readers will appreciate the inside look at Periscopic!
Kim – And thanks for writing us up!