Some post mortem notes on the experience of developing The Mystery of the Druids, twenty years later.
Preface: Three months ago, I received an email from Chris McMullen, writer at Kotaku UK. Chris requested an interview about The Mystery of Druids (MotD), an adventure game that Tobias Schachte and I started making in the late nineties. MotD was the debut title of our studio House of Tales Entertainment (1998-2010), and before Chris’ message, I hadn’t talked about the game in an eternity.
When I realised that it was exactly 20 years since we started with the development, I decided to use this interview as an opportunity for a personal and substantial Mystery of the Druids post mortem. So I sat down, did some computer archaeology, looked through some ancient files, chatted with Tobias about the old days, and then wrote answers to the questions Chris had sent me.
This interview is very long, and it’s probably of interest only for an absolute niche audience. But for me, the time to write this had quite simply arrived. Chris’ published piece on Kotaku can be found here. — MG
You’ve worked on and scripted a large number of games, such as the recent State of Mind, as well as multiple interactive projects. How did you get your start in gaming and do you have a particular design/writing philosophy?
Back in the 1970’s, when I was a boy, one of my friends got a Pong console for Christmas, and we gathered around his parents’ TV set to play. When I really look at it, I think that was the inciting incident. In the 80’s, I then got my first home computer, a Commodore VIC 20. I had no datasette, so I typed out game code listings in BASIC from computer magazines, and sometimes even got them to run. My mother would always pull the plug to use the socket for the vacuum cleaner, sending the RAM-only code to nirvana, so I finally got a datasette, played many of the early commercial games, switched to an Apple IIe, and played more games still.
It was during the studies at uni that I met a media professor who worked as a consultant for some multimedia projects that German Television was doing. I had heard that they needed a writer, so I approached him and said that I was the right person for the job. He agreed — and that’s how it all got started for me.
Mystery of the Druids was the first game from House of Tales, the development studio you founded with Tobias Schachte. How did the idea for the game initially come about? How did you settle on druids as a subject and what kind of research was involved?
I think it’s impossible to understand my memories of that process without the historical backdrop of the second half of the 90’s. When Tobias and I decided to make an adventure game together ( — the game was MotD, of course, and we started in late 1997, or early 1998 — ), the digital infrastructure surrounding the endeavor was absolutely in its infants. The public Internet was four years old. Websites were one-way affairs that would frequently sport the <blink> tag. Altavista was a highly respected and popular search engine, because Google hadn’t yet been founded. It was normal and common for everyone (including us) to look for answers on the newsgroups of the Usenet. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, not even a Myspace, and ICQ was a really hot chat tool.
Game development was a very different thing at the time. Affordable engines and development tools were practically non-existent, and the available multimedia software was either prehistorical, or rather limited.¹ Likewise, digital distribution of games was unthinkable.² And in terms of game business, the only way to really enter the market was a publishing deal, which was something you’d only get if you already had a publishing deal.
Tobias and I were two guys from Germany, aged 20 (Tobias) and 28 (me), living 400 km apart from each other, in different rural parts of the country. From our perspective, commercial games were developed in mythical places, by people who were either world-famous designers, or nameless workforce. To our knowledge, no organised development scene existed in Germany — except maybe for the German cracking scene and demo scene, but both were really just obscure coagulations of computer hobbyists.³ (Some German game development activity had been going on for at least a decade, of course, but we didn’t know any of those guys.)
So, in short, when we started out, there were no development tools available, we knew absolutely no-one in the German development scene, there were no conferences or trade-shows in the country, and from what I saw, the literature on making narrative games amounted to The Interactive Writer’s Handbook (1997), Writing for Multimedia (1997), and Hamlet on the Holodeck (1995).
We did however, young as we were, already have a little bit of software development experience under our belt. Tobias was part of a tiny company that had been assigned with the creation of a handful of educational history/mystery games for the ZDF, a major German television channel. Those games, made with Macromedia Director, had a very limited point’n’click adventure part in them, and a rather voluminous part of encyclopedic information. I was brought onto those projects as a rookie external writer (see above), for both the game and the encyclopedia parts.
Tobias and I got to know each other through that collaboration in 1996. When his mini-company dissolved, we continued to work together, became friends, and created some quite successful consumer applications for the ZDF, as a two-man team. Tobias developed the software and the technical design. I created the content and the application design. It was during those projects that we first talked about making “a proper game”.
Tobias, as it now turned out, had been spending a considerable part of his late teenage years pursuing the development of his own 2.5D game engine and tools, and he had been writing a rudimentary game script. He had invented some characters and had penned a charming little story. It was called The Heirs of the Druids.
So, this is how the project was actually born: Two guys, experienced and inexperienced at the same time, setting out on an impossible mission: Making an adventure game, complete with time-travel, cannibalistic Druids and ancient amulets.
Given this was House of Tales’ first game, what are your memories of the game’s development?
I have to say that I remember this development process as one of the most exciting times in my life — for the sheer innocence and enthusiasm of it all, for the trouble and heartbreak that would happen along the way, and of course for the formative impact that it would have on our later lives.
Practically speaking, after having decided that we really wanted to do this, we would take Tobias’ material, toy around with it, expand it, formalise it, and make a fantastical plan: We’d try to develop this further, create a demo, and then try to land a publishing deal.
The following months, we would do many things at once. For one, we continued to work in application development, to make money to pay for the demo creation. Also, we started reading Gamasutra, to find out how to get in touch with publishers and how to compile pitch material. We investigated publishing houses. We recruited some very talented German CG artists, the brothers Sven and Andreas Moll. They lived in Munich at the time, yet another 400 km away from us, and we contacted them after having seen their work awarded at the Animago Awards.
In parallel to developing consumer applications, we worked on the demo. The section we chose was from a part later in the game (for those in the know: the blacksmith). That section featured some puzzle activity involving the game world and the inventory, some multiple choice dialogue, and a cut scene. It seemed ideal to show that the engine actually worked, and that we were ready to do a full-scale production with it.
From a list of maybe 15 publishers we contacted, we only ever heard back from two or three. Adventure games were dead, after all. It took us by surprise, then, that one publisher actually got back to us with an invitation: CDV Software Entertainment.
CDV, at the time, were an up-and-coming German publishing house which had an international hit game under contract, Sudden Strike, and they were now looking to sign products, to expand their portfolio and become a stock traded company. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get signed. And sure enough: We did get signed.
This was an extraordinary and unexpected development of events, obviously. We had always been determined to get signed, and had never once questioned our own ability to make a game of this scope. And yet, actually being under contract was a huge change. We were now obliged to make the game. All theoretical questions would immediately come up again, but in a very practical and real dimension.
In the following months, we set up a highly unlikely — and as I believe to this day, cutting edge —production pipeline. The whole team, tiny as it was, would exchange data only through the Internet, and communicate only via email, Instant Messaging (ICQ), and occasionally on the phone. This development in a “virtual garage” (as we proudly called it) wasn’t without problems: The dial-up connections were so slow that for really large data transfers, we would often still burn CDs and send them back and forth via snail mail, because that was faster (we actually did the math to confirm it) and more reliable. When the Melissa virus brought down half of the Internet for a day or two in 1999, we had to resort to a telnet connection between our modems.
Tobias and I would meet personally every once in a couple of weeks, to discuss things and work side by side for a limited time, my life obligations as a young father permitting. The design of the game, as far as it was already laid out in a halfway elaborated fashion, we would now compile into an actual design document with Microsoft’s HTML Help compiler, and share it regularly with the graphics team. This document, which we actually kept current, became a backbone for the overall development.
Whatever came up in terms of design, Tobias and I addressed or agreed upon in our personal meetings. There was an avalanche of things we’d never been confronted with before, design-wise, technically, financially. Tobias single-handedly dealt with all technical and software-related things, from questions about the 3D-texturing of the characters to the lip-syncing of their speech output.
The game sports some rather odd puzzles, including one in which you had to drug a beggar in order to steal his change, though it wasn’t the only point and click game to feature bizarre logic. How did you and Tobias tackle puzzle design?
I believe many of the game’s bizarre puzzles had their roots in the fundamental lack of clarity about the overall direction of the game. Was MotD going to be an attempt at the comedy genre, or was it meant to be a dark and serious mystery? Was it a puzzle-based game with a story, or a story-driven game with puzzles? Was it going to take itself seriously, could it afford to laugh at itself? Could it combine the two, or were its goofy parts just evidence of its fundamental insecurity to stand firm on one side?
We had played Gabriel Knight and Broken Sword, Grim Fandango, Myst, Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle, and many games more. But that probably confused our design process more than it informed it. There were really obscure item combinations and outlandish puzzle solutions in some of those games, and yet, some of those same games were praised and celebrated for their “lateral thinking” and “cerebral game play” by the adventure gaming crowd.
We looked at the surface structure of the adventure game grammar, and identified puzzles as necessary and desirable obstacles — but we didn’t pay much attention to their deep structure. I think when playing other games, we did feel the importance of an overall rhythm, of context and cohesion of puzzles across a narrative, and we probably had a faint idea that there was a narrative dimension to the puzzles as such, to their function as bearers and conveyors of meaning. But ultimately, we couldn’t really derive a clear vision or coherent plan for our own work from any of that.
So, basically, we would scan MotD’s plot for points that invited puzzles or inventory activity, and design them backwards, starting at the outcome, and then, in reverse order, creating a series of complications that would prevent that outcome from being immediately accessible. With our superficial, mish-mashy analysis of the genre, the required design could be goofy, comedic, outlandish, absurd, but also be based in researched facts and actual real-life logic. After all, all of that had passed as a possible adventure game design element in some game, somewhere in the genre. I came up with some machine puzzles for the final third of the game, and I also designed large parts of the infamous maze.
Sure enough, many of the rather bizarre puzzles would later create ripple effects for the dialogue of the game, because characters needed to set the stage for them and at the same time make some contribution that moved the plot forward.
With respect to “the puzzle” ( — I realise that there are quite a few that could come under scrutiny, so for clarity: the beggar-coin-puzzle — ) I’ve tried to reverse-engineer how it found its way into the game. I’ve seen it in very early iterations of the plot document, so I think was there really early, and then it just remained in the game, across all iterations. It’s been interesting and useful as a subject of analysis, however. The cat-moustache-puzzle in Gabriel Knight was probably only inappropriate in terms of the fictional reality of the game world. MotD’s beggar-coin-puzzle would cause problems on many more layers.
First, it’d create the problem of making a phone call for a police officer, thus fundamentally distorting the reality of the game beyond any kind of, even fictional, reason outside of a comedy game.
Second, the ensuing game play process would take up a totally inappropriate amount of playing time, thus assigning the act of making a simple phone call an absurd game play weight. In dramatic terms, the hero contacting the female lead for the first time is actually an important plot event, and build-up is appropriate there, but very obviously not in this form.
But third, and most importantly: The required process ( — drugging a beggar to steal a coin from him — ), would constitute an assault on the moral integrity of the main character, to be carried out by the players. So, what the puzzle actually did was create a fundamental difference between player intent and character intent. It actively damaged the character, and, by proxy, reflected quite badly on the designers who made him and the players do this.
This was a realisation that came too late for the Druids game, evidently. But it has changed the way I look at video game characters, and it has significantly informed some of my later work. Strangely enough, it has led me to think that a fundamental difference between player intent and character intent can be a great asset for characterisation.
The game has achieved a kind of cult status, due in part to its bizarrely striking “screaming druid” box art. How did you settle on that cover and how do you feel about its notoriety?
It has been a standard clause in traditional publishing contracts that determining a game’s final title, cover, and other more or less directly sales-related aspects, were the sole right of the publisher.⁴ The box was designed and green-lighted in-house at CDV. I’m not sure we even knew what the box actually looked like until we saw it on the shelf of the local brick-and-mortar electronics shops here in Germany, on street-day.⁵ But even if we did: we couldn’t have changed it.
I do remember us complaining about the cover to the producer at CDV at the time, on the phone: Man, what were you guys thinking? And he would laugh and shrug and say that he felt the same way, but the executives from his sales department had told him that they’d wanted something that “really stuck out” on the shelf. To that extent, especially in retrospect, I can’t argue with the sales guys. They were right. It did stick out. Also, to make matters more confusing, it actually worked: Sales weren’t bad at all.
When the cover became an Internet meme at some point in the early 2010s — or at least that’s when I was made aware of the fact — , I paused for a moment of surprise, then realised that I wasn’t so surprised after all, and giggled. It’s never bothered me in the slightest after that. Actually, I feel that, in a way, it’s an appropriate cover for the game, and it’s a wonderful career for it. Key to that may be that I’m partial, and that unlike some very unpleasant and misguided people on the Internet, I love the game.
When the MotD was re-published with new publishers many years later (to considerable commercial success, I might add), changing the cover was always near the top of the list, of course. But it was always a decision made with smiles on all sides, and with bitter-sweet smiles on ours.
Finally, just be clear: This anecdote is not to put blame on those sales guys, or to play down on our own role. We certainly did complain about the cover. But at no point at the time (or later) were there any hard feelings, or grudges held, about any of this. That’s remained unchanged to this day.
At the time, many adventure games were moving towards using 3D real-time or pre-rendered graphics, moving on from FMV or hand-drawn graphics. Why did you decide to settle on 3D graphics (on 2D backgrounds)?
Oh, there’s a variety of reasons for that. We definitely knew that 3D was coming. But it was a technology that was very demanding in terms of hardware at the time, and that fact alone made 3D an unlikely choice for an adventure game. From all we knew about the target audience, it seemed clear that adventure gamers just didn’t own the required hardware. They ran old machines with low-end graphics cards, so the thought of further decimating an already tiny audience seemed absurd.
Still, there was a bit of a 3D dilemma for all adventure developers, and the question was how to address it best. Some teams experimented with stuff like cube mapping and spherical mapping, to create pre-rendered pseudo-3D spaces (Amerzone). Others used full 3D, to little success (Simon 3D).⁶ Grim Fandango, which had just come out and was from LucasArts, used a 2.5D technology, as did The Longest Journey, which came out when the Druids were in the middle of development.
Tobias and I felt that full 3D was a technology that would lend itself well to fast-paced, highly dynamic and responsive game worlds, but would look and feel poor and inappropriate in combination with the ponderous game play, the direction of camera angles, and the attention to tiny graphical detail that the classic adventure games would typically (even canonically) require. On top of that, a full 3D game would have required a completely new adventure game interface grammar. All of this was far out of reach for a team of bedroom programmers — or rather, for one twenty-year old engine programmer (Tobias), who would develop this all by himself, from ground up, with the occasional help maybe from some Microsoft MVP on the Usenet.
I’m pretty sure that our decisions ( — sticking with the beauty and detail of pre-rendered backgrounds, but moving on to 3D in terms of characters and real-time effects — ) were right and forward-looking. We would later refine our engine to include a lot more 3D, to make the camera more dynamic, and to actually use it as a means of visual narrative.
Looking back at the game, what’s your strongest memory of creating Mystery of the Druids? Is there anything about the game you’re particularly proud of?
That’s really difficult to decide, because honestly, there were many strong moments. With respect to the full game itself, I’d have to go with the fact that we actually set out to do it, and then finished it, on-time, and on-budget. Also, we produced something that I still value. MotD stands out in some ways we didn’t quite anticipate or intend, obviously. But to me it still exudes a certain weird B-movie charm, mixed with early indie video game spirit and the messiness of a complete Do-it-yourself production.
MotD tells the story of a loser on his way to salvation, in a hostile world with absurd inner workings. It’s the most basic of hero’s journeys for sure, and I know that the game at times does its very best to work against even this simplistic narrative. But ultimately, I think it’s something that people can connect with and relate to. MotD gives you the most fundamental of hopes: You can make a difference, and you’ll get that girl.
MotD laid the foundation for a studio that lasted for twelve years. It laid the groundwork for many friendships (and some enmities) that would last for decades. And when I look at the two of us at the time, the undecided, simultaneously under- and over-informed youngsters that were were, I can’t help but feel that MotD was also our transition to adulthood. Big dreams, big let-downs, and then, some gradual growth. So, yeah. The game gave us the whole spectrum of human drama, what more could I ask for.
Is there anything you’d wish, in retrospect, you’d changed about Mystery of the Druids?
I could be petty and soulless and devoid of any sense of autobiographical memory and say, yeah, maybe we should have changed some aspects of the game, the story for instance, or the dialogues, the conversation system, the puzzles, the camera angles. Maybe we should have deleted the maze, because people hate mazes. But I’m not going to say any of that.
I look at the game as the first step in an iterative development cycle that would span many, many years. With all its flaws and oddities and mistakes, for us it was the equivalent to developing a ‘Hello-World’-prototype. And I believe every person on Earth who’s ever tried to implement anything in the form of code will know how it feels to achieve that.
How did your experience creating Mystery of Druids influence the way you approached later projects, with House of Tales and beyond?
Developing MotD was — in the literal sense of the word — a crash course in all things game development, as well as in all things game business. Practically everything we did, we did for the first time, and pretty much all of it would inform later projects. Game development is always a process of discovery, and I think we learned that to the fullest extent with MotD.
You’ve mentioned the game is dear to you, could you explain why? Is there anything else you’d like people to know about the game?
You know, it’s a bit like when you and your friend set out with the crazy plan to build a spaceship in your backyard. You’re clueless youngsters, and it is a makeshift vehicle fabricated with stuff from your local hardware store. But then, inexplicably, this thing actually takes off, and it takes you to space. Of course, as soon as you’re there, all master alarms start to blink, and the oxygen tank leaks, and the whole insufficient thing threatens to fall apart around you. But somehow, you survive, and you make it back home alive. You might look at that as a failed mission, but you’d be very wrong to do so. After all, you’re now an astronaut.
¹ There were some tools for Interactive Fiction around, early iterations of Inform, TADS. Also, there were some offline tools for creating Hyperfiction, like Hypercard/Supercard. An early DOS version of AGS (Adventure Creator) had been around since 1997, and was revamped in 1999. Macromedia Director dominated the “multimedia” space. The Unreal Engine came out in late 1998, at six-figure licensing costs.
² Digital distribution only arrived in mainstream with Half-Life 2 and Steam, in 2004.
³ Despite the complicated political background of its author, I recommend this book for an in-depth look at the demo scene in Germany (and elsewhere): Tamás Polgár: Freax. The Brief History of the Computer Demoscene. CSW-Verlag 2008.
⁴ At least this has been true for many contracts that I have signed. It’s a clause that’s difficult to change when in a weak negotiating position, which we obviously always were. (But then, the traditional publishing model basically put all developers at a structural — and for most of us, insurmountable — disadvantage.)
⁵ “Street day” used to be the term for the day a game went on physical sale in shops, in the times before digital distribution.
⁶ Simon the Sorcerer 3D was released in April 2002, 18 months after the game had officially been declared to have achieved gold status, which meant it had been finished by November 2000. I think it’s safe to assume that its development started in the late nineties.
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