The morning is long gone and I am late for class-- or I would be, if weren't playing hookie. I am jostled by some of my fellow heroes-in-training as I make my way up the winding stairs of Hero-U, the school for heroes, looking for the right room. I finally find it- a quiet little tavern (“student cafeteria” is the official title... but heroes don't go to cafeterias, they go to taverns, goshdarnit!) with windows overlooking the grounds of this most hallowed of institutions. There, sitting at a table in the corner, I spy those whom I am destined to meet today.
Lori and Corey Cole don't cast spells- yet they have held thousands spellbound with their stories. They don't actively go out and battle dragons, yet they have encouraged many in the quest for heroism and know at heart what it is that makes a hero. Corey and Lori Cole are the creators of Quest For Glory, the pentalogy that introduced the concept of the Adventure/RPG hybrid to the market and which narrates the story of a naïve young adventurer (you) who grew from a wet-behind-the-ears greenhorn to a real hero.
Charles Horton Cooley once said that "to have no heroes is to have no aspiration, to live on the momentum of the past, to be thrown back upon routine, sensuality, and the narrow self." The Coles have kept us well-provided with such characters, telling their inspirational and touching stories in electronic form for years, and that in itself is a heroic endeavor. Which is why, probably, my hand is shaking a little when I shake theirs and sit down at the table.
There is a stein of the famous Dragon's Breath smoking, bubbling and goodness-knows-what-else near me. Nobody is drinking it, though-- you don't drink Dragon's Breath, you just contemplate it. Like your own mortality. Or cosmic heat death.
I have learned that the Coles are embarking upon yet another brave journey, seeking funding to tell a new story of daring and courage-- the story of Hero-U and its students! In this new game (first of a planned series), you take on the role of Shawn O'Conner, a would-be Thief who has had a rough life. As Shawn, you will attend Hero-U, a school that tries to teach young adventurers to be heroes. Shawn can continue his quest to join the Thieves' Guild, or he can strive to become a Rogue Hero. He has a lot to learn to succeed at either path.
I arranged our little rendez-vous to know more about this new game, so I launch into my questions, eager to know more about their past and about the great new story they are bringing into the world through Kickstarter.
1. The Quest for Glory series, and your School of Heroes, are some of the few projects around that are unabashedly heroic in their take-- the theme of what makes a hero, albeit touched with humor, seems like a very strong core in your endeavors. What makes the concept of heroism so fascinating? Does it have a personal significance for you?
Heroes are an archetype, and the idea resonates with most of us. To us, a Hero is someone who starts as an ordinary person, but finds a way to do extraordinary things. Hero's Quest centered on the player – You were the Hero, and the actions you took made a difference in the fantasy lives of every other character in the game.
In Quest for Glory 2: Trial by Fire, we particularly explored the idea of society vs. the individual. Raseir was a totalitarian city with strict rules. Our message was that it is important to be yourself, and to do the right thing regardless of bad laws. That was partly an answer to the AD&D Paladin – a class that must always be both Good and Lawful to the extreme. Our games explored the idea that sometimes these two ideals are in conflict, and when that happens, it's most important to choose to do Good.
2. It has been fourteen years since the last game in the series came out, and yet you can find tons of websites dedicated to the series, all of them with thriving, active communities. The anthology at gog.com has nothing but glowing reviews of the games(106 of them at last count), did you ever suspect that something you created would be so loved by so many people, for so long? As the creators, what do you think is at the core of the series' appeal?
We always intended our Hero's Quest / Quest for Glory games to be played in sequence as a series. We didn't realize at first that this was a little naïve. Technology was improving so quickly that our older games didn't match up with the later ones in artistic and audio quality.
We're thrilled that people are still playing our games, and that gog.com now has the entire Quest for Glory 1-5 collection (including both the 16 and 256 color versions of QfG1) for $10. That opens up the series for a lot of new players to discover the games... as long as someone tells them about Quest for Glory.
3. There was a long stretch of time in which you two weren't very active in the field... was there a particular issue that prompted both of you to leave the game industry? What inspired your return with this project?
It wasn't actually our choice. The game industry has always been chaotic, and we've been caught in the middle of several of those storms. We landed on our feet a few times, but games changed so dramatically after 2000 – the era of the first-person shooter – that our skills didn't fit in as well to the game industry.
That's not to say we were entirely out of things. After the first big Sierra layoff, we made Shannara. Then Sierra called us back to make Quest for Glory V. Then I switched over to multiplayer games and helped create a popular online poker site.
After that, things dried up. I didn't particularly want to work on shooter games – they make me motion-sick – and that was 90% of the game industry. We weren't able to get into Blizzard, which was one of the few companies still making games that interested us. So we started The School for Heroes and I dealt with family matters and played a lot of World of Warcraft and other games.
The environment wasn't right for our return until this year. Tim Shafer opened up Kickstarter to adventure game fans, we made some great connections to form our team, and we stopped playing WoW – which has freed up a lot of time.
4. Over the last few years, you've been involved with the School of Heroes website... can you tell us about it, and how it came around?
There have actually been two versions of the School. The first was called "How to Be a Hero", and was originally designed to promote a Young Adult novel Lori wrote with Mishell Baker. They finished the book, but didn't think it was ready for publication, and Mishell went on to other things.
Lori discovered she liked running the school, and felt it was important (that "anyone can be a Hero" thing). So we made a new site, www.theschoolforheroes.com, and ran it for several years starting in 2008. That was again intended to promote a new project, a fantasy text adventure game we were going to publish through Malinche Entertainment. After I coded up a couple of rooms with Inform 6, and experimented a little with Inform 7, we decided that traditional Interactive Fiction wasn't the way we wanted to go.
Besides responding to assignments and working on that first version of the school game, I started a blog there called the "Quest Log" (www.theschoolforheroes.com/questlog). Lori and I still post to that occasionally on our ideas about heroism, gaming, and related topics.
5. Was there ever any thought of making Quest For Glory VI, or was Hero-U the new game project idea right from the start?
We might have had one chance to make Quest for Glory VI. In our final months at Sierra, Craig Alexander – the General Manager of Yosemite Entertainment – offered to broker a deal with the corporate office to get us a perpetual license to the series. All we had to do was give up all royalties on all of our past games. If we had known then how little we would end up making from those royalties, we would have made the deal. Of course, it still might not have actually happened.
The situation since then has been that Sierra – and its long succession of parent companies – owns the rights to the Quest for Glory name and previous game content. We had no luck trying to license the series from Vivendi, and we've heard from three other companies that they haven't been able to get a license from Activision.
So we can't make Quest for Glory VI unless/until that situation changes. We would also need a lot more money than we think we could raise on Kickstarter. We estimate that a worthy successor to Quest for Glory – say using the equivalent of Quest for Glory IV technology – would cost $1 - $1.5 million to make. QfGV actually cost over $4 million to develop, but we think we can improve on that.
We specified Hero-U to be less expensive to produce than a traditional Sierra adventure game. It will have fewer unique screens and less animation. It's still going to be incredibly tight, but we have other ways to raise capital later in the project if we need it.
6. I've heard you describe Hero-U as the game you have always wanted to make. Were you originally shooting for a game like Hero-U during your time with Sierra? Was it not deemed possible at the time, technologically?
Sierra tools were designed for making a particular type of adventure game. I added a layer on top of them to support some role-playing game play, but we frequently ran into limitations of the system. However, Sierra originally hired Lori because they wanted her to make a role-playing game, so we made a hybrid adventure/RPG. It certainly fit *our* definition of an RPG.
Hero-U is again a compromise, but one we are very excited about. We have an interesting story and characters planned, we're getting to use an upgraded version of our "school for heroes" as a setting, and we have a team that we trust completely. We're getting to do some interesting things because we have fewer limitations than at Sierra. Partly that's because of our decision to focus on a single character rather than having to handle many different options for four character classes.
7. What's unique about Hero-U and its world? What kind of experience can your future players look forward to, once the game is finished?
With each Hero-U game focused on a single character, the story can be tighter than in our previous games. And of course, making story central to a game immediately distinguishes it from most games being made currently.
We also have a dynamic mix of game play between the University, taking classes, studying in the library, making friends with other students... then going down into the catacombs, exploring, fighting monsters, and solving the mysteries of why Shawn got sent to Hero-U and what's going on in the outside world. Our plan is to have a strong balance between the story, character interactions, and role-playing elements of the game.
We're trying to create a game for which walk-throughs will be inadequate. Each player can make choices about how to interact with other students and teachers, where to spend their time, and on what they want to focus. All of these choices will have effects on relationships and the story, so the game may seem different to every player. That's a much different idea from watching a film or playing a tightly-scripted adventure game.
The constant for all players is that more of the game world and mysteries will open up for the player as the game progresses. Eventually you'll reach one of a number of satisfying conclusions.
We intend to let players save their status, then "import" that into future games. But it won't work like a Quest for Glory import. Shawn will be present in the later games, and what you did in the first one will affect his personality and elements of the story, but you'll be playing a different character with a completely different backstory and character abilities by then.
In the last game, all of that will come together through a Cunning and Subtle Plan that Lori and I hope we'll know how to pull off by then.
8. The Quest for Glory series had a lot of amazing characters drawn from different traditions and mythologies, and of course you had a lot of fascinating anthropomorphic characters. Are there plans to include anthropomorphic characters in Hero-U? Any protagonists/sidekicks in the future, perhaps?
We will definitely have some. One character is a Rattie – a Humanoid rat. There will be some Katta-like people in the games (but they aren't significant in the first game). We have Meeps all over the place, and might be able to make one a companion.
We will be adding at least one anthropomorphic fuzzy character in each game – although some may not be obvious at first. The fur shall fly!
9. We've seen some of your fellow legends from Sierra and Lucasarts achieve success in their Kickstarter projects. The adventure genre was infamously pronounced 'dead' many years ago, and yet Kickstarter (and the indie scene) shows that there is an enormous interest on the behalf of the public for them. What do you think of this interesting turn of events in the market?
We think it's fantastic! Kickstarter is letting indie game-makers increase their visibility to the public. That said, adventure games are still pretty marginal. Double Fine Adventure's 87,000 backers are enough for the big companies to take notice, but not necessarily to get excited.
It's also a bit of a fluke. Only Project: Eternity has duplicated Double Fine's success. In both cases, they are projects from companies with recent popular games, so they have an actively-gaming fan base.
In contrast, Leisure Suit Larry got just 14,000 backers, SpaceVenture 11,000, and Jane Jensen's Pinkerton Road under 6,000. Hero-U is in a struggle to see if we can reach even 6,000 fans. Those are tiny numbers by big-publisher standards; even in 1990, Sierra only made games unless they expected to sell over 100,000 copies.
So crowdfunding is a great way to let niche games be created, but it isn't replacing the big publishers or suddenly bringing adventure gaming "back to life". It's just adding choices... which we think is wonderful!
Adventure games weren't quite dead in any case. Our developer, Brawsome, created Jolly Rover in 2010, and I'm fairly sure it has sold over 100K copies. The problem is that many of those sold at such low prices, the game could only have been made because Brawsome got Arts grants to help develop it. Kickstarter supporters are much more willing to put in $20 or more towards a game they really want to play.
10. What would you say are the most important lessons you have learned when it comes to creating an engaging game? If you could give some advice to the aspiring indie developers out there, what would it be?
Consistency – Everything in the game needs to make sense in context. Even in a fantasy game, magic has to be reasonable, limited, and appropriate to the setting. We never say, "Oh, here's a puzzle idea; let's put it in the game." Instead, we find the crux points in the story – or in the lives of individual characters in the story. Then we ask, "What is a problem that a single character – the player – could help solve for this other character? How can the player make a difference in the story or in someone's virtual life?"
When you build a game that way, game mechanics become secondary to story, and your world begins to feel more real to the players. Of course, you have to make sure that the tasks you're setting for the player are interesting and/or fun ones.
Another suggestion is, "Don't be afraid to try something and throw it away." Keep testing, listen to feedback from other developers and players, then refine or destroy the ideas that didn't work out. One reason why we collaborate well together is that we can take each other's silly ideas and talk through them until they turn into something useful.
Don't be arrogant – Encourage feedback and pay attention to what it says. At the same time, be true to your vision of the story and game. You can't please everybody, but you can and should make changes when someone has a sensible criticism.
Quality and Care – Don’t stop refining until you're sure everything in your game is good. Sometimes we had to ship Sierra games before we felt they were completely ready, and we hated it. My favorite game on that criterion? Castle of Dr. Brain. I didn't let that go out the door until I, my team, and the QA team all agreed it was rock solid. Quest for Glory IV – one of our best games in terms of design, story, and so on – was horribly marred because it shipped months before it was really ready to go.
Finally, go with your passion, and with what you know. If you look at the market and see that a certain type of game is popular, that's no reason for you to make that type of game. Make games that you want to play, and make them in a way that will make you proud later.
It is with those wise words that our interview comes to an end and I must take my leave of the Coles. They're busy people- they've got a campaign to run! As I hurry to my next class (“Running Away From Pointy Things And Towards More Pointy Things”) I realize I'm excited to see this project come to fruition- who can resist the call to adventure, after all? I know others like me will most likely follow the link below, edged on by the hero's call, and contribute to the Kickstarter: