Alkis Polyrakis from Atropos Studios, "Diamonds in the Rough"

Παρασκευή, 26 Οκτωβρίου 2007, Συντάκτης Elessar, Fallen Angel

Alkis Polyrakis from Atropos Studios, "Diamonds in the Rough"

First of all, we would like to thank you for welcoming us at your place. We all had a great time.

It was my pleasure. As a matter of fact, that was a new experience for me, as I usually transfer the bribery money to bank accounts. But since you insisted so intensely to take the money in person in order to give me a rhapsodic review, what was I supposed to do?

I don't know whether a couple of beers are enough as to give you a rhapsodic review, dear Alkis. You will have to add some pizzas, souvlakia and other goodies to the recipe. ;) Kidding aside, though, we would like to find out some things about you and your life while you're developing a PC game. Let us start with the usual question: why did you decide to develop an adventure game? What was it because you wanted to do your thing or because you believed you have something to offer to both gamers and the genre?

Well, my name is Alkis Polyrakis. I'm 32 years old and I studied electrical engineering at the University of Patras, specializing in telecommunications. Nowadays, I'm working as an Editing Manager for an international scientific organization. Above all, however, I consider myself a programmer.

As a matter of fact, the first game I created wasn't Other Worlds, but a fuzzball type of game, or something, for Spectrum ZX+, which I sold to a company in Belgium where I was living at the age of 13. It was written entirely in Basic and I had developed it with the help of a fellow-student by the name of Michel Draelens if I remember correctly. This game met great commercial success: I bought one, my mother bought one and Michel another one. We have lost track of this game since then. So, I would like to state that if someone ever finds for me a game for Spectrum by the weird name 'Flipper', he or she will have free games by Atropos Studios for the rest of his/her life.

As you may understand, I wanted to do my thing from a very early age... and since my favourite genre was and remains adventure, I've always wanted to develop one. Have you ever read a book so badly written that you said to yourselves "Surely I can do better than this"? I believe that's the way we all begin, more or less. Now, whether I have something to offer or not, I leave it to you.

As far as how my life is while I'm developing a game, I have the sweet tiredness a man feels when dedicating much time to something he/she loves.

Did you just wake up one morning and said "today I'm going to write my new adventure"? How do you reach the point to getting down to writing the story? How do you decide what to include in this story from all the things that pop in to mind?

I never find the story. It literally finds me. I think it's being gradually built in my subconscious until at some point a seemingly irrelevant stimulus reveals its pick, and all I have to do is to unveil it carefully. Other Words began when I read the phrase "Go on then, there are other worlds than this" in Stephen King's Dark Tower. After that, it all came naturally. Questions like how would a story with parallel worlds be, how each of them would feel like and what the obstacles required to surpass would be were easily answered. Likewise, Diamonds in the Rough was born when I heard the phrase in a movie. The image of a company recruiting people with supernatural abilities popped up in large and shiny colors in my mind. And I heard the first person representing it, who later on developed into the character of William Hungerton, saying "I want to offer you a job".

I believe it is very important not to let anything be lost in oblivion. Thus, I always note it down immediately. I'm quite sure all with whom we shared our military years still remember my 'legendary' notepad which I always had with me at the sentry-box... I had the germ of telling fantasy tales from a very early age. My father, instead of reading me bedtime stories, used to listen carefully to my narrations of stories with dragons, princesses and aliens. When the narration ended, he would go to my mother and exclaim: "Woman, the boy is daft".

But all this of course is only the beginning. In order to come up with something with more gist, you need to sit down and write the story beginning from that idea. Unfortunately, for every good idea I may have there are another ten worthless ones that end up nowhere. Maybe for someone more talented than me this percentage is higher.

What I will not include in the final "cut" has everything to do with the fact that we are talking about an adventure game and not a book or a movie. Thus, lengthy parts of the story which are not appropriate for interaction will not be included.

Moreover to that, how do you decide what each character will say? Are the dialogues naturally unfolding themselves since you have outlined each character in your mind or are they being developed and matured as you go along?

First of all, I never write the dialogues from the very beginning. In the script I write the following: X meets Y and they talk about 1) the house, 2) Y's past, 3) the letter, etc. I have come to the conclusion that this way all dialogues come up more naturally than if I write them in advance. So, what you said is certainly correct: they mature along the way. Characters come to life take it from there.

You told us during our meeting that you still haven't written the ending of Diamonds in the Rough. Would you like to explain to our readers why while being just a few months before releasing the game, you still haven't written its ending? Moreover, would you consider including an alternative ending?

As far as I know you have no children yet, right? Have you already decided what job your future kid will have when he grows up? And let's just say that you do decide. He's going to be a doctor. Will he be able to attend Medical School? Let's say you send him abroad to study Medicine as to overcome this. But, wait a second. Did you ask him about it? Or do you really believe that when that time comes he will seek more than a simple advice of you? Have you even considered that if you besiege him to do something he doesn't actually want to, the result won't be the best possible?

The story has its own life. It's not an automobile that you can take anywhere you want to. It's a train moving on rails. Yes, surely you can set its direction, speed it up or change its trail, but if you try to divert its course, it will be derailed. The ending will be revealed to me when the time comes, as a natural procedure. If I predefine it, anything I do during the story’s development will be unconsciously drawn that way. It will just slow me down.

As I know all this sound like false philosophy and some may think that they're nothing more than fancy words, I will give you an example. DITR's original plot included an abundance of pleasantry and funny situations, mainly because I lack the ability to remain serious for more than five minutes. I'm not saying it was a comedy; it just included sarcastic elements within its dark theme. When I tried to transfer it from the paper into the game, the result left me unsatisfied. Although I found many of the jokes funny, they just wouldn't fit. There was something unnatural about them. Thus, I decided to exclude almost all of them. Is there a better example of the fact that you can't push a story to go your way without ruining it?

Now, as far as alternative endings are concerned. Although I do acknowledge that they worked for some titles, they're just not my style. What's the reason of their existence? To satisfy everyone by giving them the chance to choose what they prefer? If Renee Zellweger is destined to get married in the end, how will the story benefit from an alternative ending that has her crashed by a meteor?

And what about the puzzles? Had you already decided what kind of puzzles you wanted to use and you just tried to include them in DitR? Or do you come up with ideas regarding puzzles "that would go nice here" as you develop the game?

Most of the puzzles are written in the early draft of the script, along with the plot that is. Nonetheless, others are added along the way. The important thing to do is to make sure there's a good balance between easy, medium and hard to solve puzzles. Thus, you satisfy all gamers regardless their experience level.

All brainchilds -no matter how original they might be!- have been influenced by others either directly or indirectly. Can you distinct your own influences? Should we assume that your passion of Stephen King's work affects you to a certain degree? Moreover, by recent adventure releases which have had a greater impact on you? Will you turn to your advance anything you liked in them?

Of course I have been influenced by others; there's no doubt about it. I'm fascinated by authors who can create alternative worlds without losing focus on the story's characters, such as Poe, King, Rowling, Carroll, and others. Especially the illusive world Lewis Carroll created is fascinating. Do you reckon I'd have copyright problems if I released "Alkis in Wonderland"?

Fantasy stories, in their wider sense, are the ones I prefer to any others and I truly don't know if I could cope with any attempt to create something different.

I haven't played many adventures those last years as to have an in-depth opinion about them. I did however enjoy Scratches thoroughly.

How many hours you dedicate to DitR given that you do have to work elsewhere at the same time?

I'm afraid that when you can't do something as a full-time job, the hours dedicated to it can't be steady. Some unexpected commitments I had in both my personal and professional life prevented me from keeping my original timetable.

OK, so you've got the story, the puzzles and the dialogues -the game's core that is- finished. Then what? How do you choose your partners as far as graphic creation, music composing, beta testing, etc, is concerned? Would you like to tell us a bit about them?

I suppose you're referring to independent developers, as large companies surely work in a totally different way. The first and most difficult step to take is to set the budget, which has to be defined accordingly to the sales you expect the game to hit. Personally, I invested the amount of money I believe I'll get back in the worst case scenario. It's a mistake, which many have paid its price already, to believe that the more you invest in the game the more you'll get back. Your limitations as an independent developer releasing his first commercial game are predefined.

My connections in the industry helped me a great deal when choosing the right associates. I don't know whether people know about it, but us independent adventure developers, at least those of us who love the genre, are not competitive to each other. On the contrary, we help each other as much as possible.

A very important factor one has to bear in mind when starting something like this is that it's impossible to do everything on your own. And I'm not talking about the creative part of a game; I'm talking about the rest. If I had to deal myself with taxations, legal issues, literary properties, project management, accounting and so forward, I wouldn't have any time left to create the game! Thus, every person has to take on his proper role in the development.

I don't think there's any success recipe. Some decisions were made after long hours of testing, like actors for instance. However, luck was my best friend more often than not, as some very important to the project people came out of thin air, like Nicolas Sideris (composer) and Nikki Mallon (additional scripting).

Looking in retrospect at your first adventure game, Other Worlds, how would you evaluate it? Which you believe were its pros and which its cons? What's the experience gained by Other Worlds and how was it imprinted in DitR?

Other Worlds' pros surely contain the fact that it convinced gamers. Its story attracted their interest. They saw some quality in it and they felt as part of its world. In addition, it brought up memories of the old adventure games as far as its puzzles' style was concerned.

Its cons were of course graphics and sound. But there were others, like the non user-friendly interface and several points that had no meaning at all for some as in order to get them you should have known Natalia and Alkis personally. If I'm allowed to an excuse, I'd say that I didn't know so many thousands of people would play it! I thought I was creating something for a few friends and relatives.

The experience gained by OW is invaluable as it was followed by plenty of feedback, which I believe I most certainly considered while creating DITR.

We don't want to push you into revealing important clues of the DitR story, since we know that you have been keeping it as an absolute secret. Could you tell us though a few words about the plot?

First of all I would like to say that Diamonds in the Rough is a 3rd person, point & click adventure. The story is about some people who get hired from a mysterious organization thanks to their special abilities. You play the role of Jason Hart who will try to reveal his employers' intentions. As you correctly guessed, I'm not going to tell you more at this point, but I can tell you that it's a fantasy story focused at the dark side of the human nature.

From what we saw we have a nicely worked and mysterious scenario. Is it because you believe that a good scenario is an essential condition for a 'successful' adventure game?

I do believe that, as I also believe that puzzles are of the same importance. If an adventure game excels in these two neuralgic aspects, then I can personally forgive any other possible flaw.

Another characteristic that we also enjoyed was the reasoning of the puzzles and the role of the Thoughts Panel to their solution. Will you tell us a couple of words about this choice of yours?

Using the Thoughts Panel is much easier than describing it.

Actually it's a second inventory. As you proceed into the game, some thoughts come out and others disappear. For example, a character's name would be a simple thought. A situation like a meeting or something that Jason has just witnessed would be a complex one.

Thoughts can be Examined, Combined or Used at any part of the game just like any inventory item.

We want to believe that the Thoughts Panel will help the player to identify himself with Jason, while offering some interesting puzzles as well.

At the opposite, a characteristic that we less fancied were the characters' 3D models that are of lesser quality compared with the background graphics of DitR. Will you keep them as they are or are you thinking of improving them and for what reason?

Of course the models and especially their movement are not ideal. But unfortunately this is an issue enforced by the limited budget and there is no way of improving them. Yet, according to our beta testers, a few minutes of gameplay are enough to forget this particular flaw because I believe that the rest of DitR recompenses the gamer.

Which are, according to you, the strongest and the weakest points of DitR? Do you think it's a game that addresses all the adventure gamers, a part of them, or even a broader public?

If I must choose only one, I will say that the advantage of the game is the scenario because it is daring, out of the ordinary and, if we have done things right, it gives you that 'what will happen next' feeling. The disadvantage is what we mentioned in the previous question.

It's hard to guess whom it addresses to. I could say that it will be best appreciated by adventurers who grew up with LucasArts games, but I used to believe the same thing about Other Worlds too, which turned out to have an equally strong effect at the target group of 12-18 years old. To answer though, I will tell you that DitR addresses the gamers who always want something more than a story and who enjoy receiving food for thought.

Approximately how long do you estimate the duration of its gameplay? In addition, will it be difficult? Do you think that there are points where even the experienced adventurers will get stuck?

I never managed to understand how the duration of the gameplay is actually measured, so allow me not to answer this. As for its difficulty level, I'd say that it ranges from medium to difficult.

In what format will DitR be released? Have you found a publisher? Are you still looking for one? When it comes to packing will you do anything different, since you are an adventure gamer yourself and you know what we expect? Or will you finally submit to the latest trend of downloadable adventures?

The only thing I can reveal at the moment is that it will definitely not be downloadable.

What do you expect from the game? What would you like to achieve with DitR?

I want to get people thinking, even if I have to shock them in the process, about a very important issue that concerns us all. I also want to show that even the most difficult puzzle can be solved with correct combining and subtractive reasoning. In other words, as we use to say in Atropos Studios, 'Nothing adventured, nothing gained'.

Finally, let us ask about a few things of general interest. In your opinion, what is the biggest problem with today's adventure scene? What do you think is 'missing' from contemporary adventure games- if of course you do think that something is missing?

Speaking as a player and not as a developer- because I have too little experience of the latter as to make a high critic- I think that today's adventures are simply following the pattern of our times, that is everything done fast, sloppy and easy. So we get the usual successful recipes (instead of ingenuity and boldness for something new), simplicity (instead of composed thinking) and commodity (instead of challenge). All of the above are offered in admittedly impressive packing, since modern technology gives space for audiovisual masterpieces in our PC monitor. Adventure games have always been to me like an old cozy tavern where you could sit on comfy chairs for hours with your friends and enjoy the gourmet with no rush. Now they're like a fast food restaurant with shiny neon lights that attracts you like a fly to just get in, eat on a stool, pay and leave.

Could I suggest that magic is what is missing from today's adventures? That would be cliche and probably not quite accurate, since magic is mostly inside us. Most of all, I would say that challenge is what's missing.

Lately it has been observed- after a long period of time- that there is an increase of the number of new adventure games, while at the same time some famous developers (see Jane Jensen) come back in the act. What do you believe is the cause of that?

This is nothing new. Even in the past the commercial success of a single title brought forth a lot of profiteers who suddenly discovered that people still liked adventures. Quantity didn't bring quality though. As for the old developers, if anything good will (re)occur by their getting back in action, it will depend on two factors: how much freedom they will be given to work as they wish and how eager they will be to dare reproduce all those elements that made the genre so popular 15 years ago.

Concluding, we are wishing you all the best about DitR. We really can't wait till March to watch it completed and have the great mystery of the story's taboo subject finally revealed!

Thank you very much for all your interesting questions and keep up the great work you’re doing with Adventure Advocate.

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