September 25, 2006

New Interactive Drama in the Works (Part 1)

by Andrew Stern · , 12:51 pm

Since Façade was released over a year ago, we’ve yet to announce our plans for what’s next. Well, I’m happy to say Procedural Arts has a new interactive drama production underway, for over half a year now in fact. For those interested in the details, here’s Part 1 in a series of posts summarizing what’s been going on over the past year.

After releasing Façade in July 2005 and recuperating for several months, we were ready to begin a new interactive drama production, a commercial product this time, and seek funding for it. The goal is to take what works best from Façade, fix or improve upon what didn’t work, to make a new, more fun, more marketable interactive drama. That is, it won’t be “Façade II”.

This project will be full-time for me, and part-time for Michael who is now a full-time assistant professor at UC Santa Cruz. For me it will mean getting back into industry-mode, like I was during the 1990’s when I shipped 8 products, then “briefly” going into research mode with Michael from 2000 to mid-2005 (!), always intending to get back to commercial work, building upon our research results.

I’m leading the project’s design, writing and engineering, with Michael contributing as much to the design and engineering as he has time for. A small team will eventually be recruited to collaborate on design, engineering, writing, animation, management, testing, voice acting, music, etc.

I spent much of last fall generating a slew of different concepts for the product, while doing some part-time consulting for USC’s ICT to support myself. By the new year we had a treatment in hand of the concept for the new project.

I’ll wait for a future post to describe the concept itself, but will reveal a few details for now. It will be an “outrageous comedy/drama” with an ensemble of about 10 characters. Each play-through will last approximately 40 real-time minutes, taking place at a single location, designed to be replayed many times. We’ll retain the natural language interface, but incorporate far more physical action than Façade did. It will almost surely generate an “M” rating, not for violence, but for sex.

This means it will be a substantially bigger project than Façade, with much more content, and more technically advanced. Even though it builds heavily upon Façade‘s architecture and techniques, it’s safe to say the project will take 2-3 years to complete. Part of that development time is spent on gameplay and AI improvements aimed at ensuring the product is fun to play, and marketable — features Façade could have used more of.

Rather than go the traditional route of seeking a game industry publisher, it’s planned to be an independent production, like an indie film, to give us the needed amount of creative control. Last January at the Slamdance indie games festival we met some independent film producers who were intrigued by Façade and producing a game using an indie film production model, i.e., project-based funding, from the indie film investor community. (Later we found out we’re not the only ones with this idea.) Over the next several months we began negotiating a deal. The goal was with their experience raising money for indie films, they would executive produce the product, and Procedural Arts would get paid to develop the product; we’d all share in the profits.

Meanwhile, in early January my baby daughter Eva was born, and coincidentally shortly thereafter Michael adopted his baby daughter Nataly. I’ve been, and for at least the next bunch of months will be, a stay-at-home dad half the week.

For now I work on the project half of the week, plus some on the weekend and evenings, for a total of about 25 hours per week. Obviously this time constraint is one of the reasons for the 2-3 year timeline. Squeezed for time this past year I also gave up going to conferences I could have co-presented at, including DAC, GDC, AIIDE, IVA, and the upcoming mediaterra festival, the Montreal Game Summit and TIDSE. And I haven’t been blogging much. But that’s fine. I’m really, really enjoying all this time with Eva, it’s the greatest.

So for the past 7 months at 25 hrs/week, I’ve been working hard to design the drama, writing sample stageplays, developing technical improvements, and prototyping. I’m currently in the process of creating a much-needed new set of authoring tools to greatly enhance the production process, and working with Michael to add a few new features to the behavior language; both will be useful for this project and beyond.

In Part 2 of this series of posts, a week or so from now, I’ll discuss a few of the design issues being grappled with, and say a bit more on where things are (or not) in the fundraising process.