Willow’s Effect

willow effect

I’ve written about my dev in the past, but I only really looked at the more practical side of it. I’m a practical person these days it seems. But I thought I’d write about a slightly different side of my (somewhat limited) experience of game development. This is by no means a blow by blow account, but I think you’ll get a feel for how I got where I am now.

It was about halfway through the year 2000, I was not long past 20 years old and halfway through my first year at college studying computer science, physics and biology. I was sitting beside my girlfriend, another student I had met in college, in a brightly lit if small room in our local maternity hospital. We were both deep in shock, we had just miscarried. We were to have a baby girl, whom we had named Willow.

I eventually dropped out of college and got a job in a local record store, then moved into the health sector where I’ve been working for over decade now. My girlfriend went on to complete her degree, but we had fallen out of contact long before then. We were too much of a reminder to each other, of something we could never forget. It was something that would define a great deal of both our lives, and we would deal with it in our own ways. I try to keep Willow in my memory in small ways. We have a small willow tree in our back garden for instance, I even lived in an estate called Willow Park for 8 years.

Fast forward to 2015, and life is very different. I’ve never forgotten Willow, she’s been with me the whole time. I went back to college and got my degree, though not in the sciences I was more practical and studied HR. I got a higher diploma in Lean management which suits my career in the health sector quite well. I’ve travelled, I’ve owned a sports car, I’ve been in horrific debt (Still am I guess!). I live with my wife and we’d had a little girl but there’s one dream I’d never really considered pursuing.

Twitter is my social media of choice, Facebook was just a bit too full on for me, and while I had an account I would shortly close it down. Twitter works well for me, short bursts of information I can fit into my daily life and what felt like a closer community. I’d been following more and more indie devs as they seemed to be quite accessible and happy to interact and knew all kinds of things about something I’ve always loved: games. They’ve often been a coping mechanism for me, as well as a hobby I enjoy. Like many fans of the hobby I’d often day dreamed about making one myself, but always felt it was impossible. Games take big teams of highly skilled people to make, right? But the more I listened to the indie dev scene the more I realized maybe game dev wasn’t out of my reach, or anyone’s reach really.

After some encouragement I decided to give it a shot and get into game dev. I wanted to set a goal I could keep. I’m fairly well aware of where my boundaries are regarding my dev skill set and I wanted to do something that would both push me to learn, but still be attainable within a relatively short period of time. While I had worked on artwork before and shown in a few galleries around my local town I have almost no experience working on game graphics so that was out. Sound effects and music is also something I have no experience in so I had to strike that as well. I did however have experience programming from back in my college days so that’s what I decided to focus on.

I’ve always been a fan of point and click games and the strong narrative they can produce. Paring that back to something I felt I could do, I decided on doing a text adventure, often called interactive fiction these days. I didn’t need any graphics or sound and I could build the story right into the mechanics of the game, making the player a (hopefully) willing participant in writing the story.

I wanted to regain what I had learned in college about my programming, and improve on it so it never really crossed my mind to use an existing engine or which there are many very useful and fully featured ones available, such as Quest and Inform7. Pretty much from the get go I was going to program my own engine.

Since I had no experience at all creating games I thought I’d do a really small text adventure, one room, maybe two, to prove to myself that I could do it at all and learn some fundamentals while I was at it. I hit up Google looking for somewhere to start. For some reason I was intimidated by Microsoft’s Visual Studio so instead I used Code::Blocks a similar enough coding environment that was open source. Eventually I found exactly what I needed, someone had posted a small series of blog posts on how to program your own text adventure engine from scratch using C++, perfect! (Unfortunately I can’t find them any more. I was looking for them to post in my own blog and when I couldn’t find them I decided to write my own series based on my experience for other new beginners, hopefully easier to find).

As I followed the tutorial and set up my first set of verbs and nouns, started to create a map I knew I couldn’t stop with one or two rooms and a few generic items. I wanted to do more. Part of doing any project though, is keeping an eye on scope. And I had heard of enough projects failing because of scope creep that I kept a relatively tight leash on my ambitions. Instead of launching into a full game I came up with the idea to do a prologue, just like a book would have. If the game turned out good and people liked it, I could follow up on it with chapters, much like Telltale in known for in their own narrative games.

Now I was into the thick of it. Since it was no longer a personal demo I had to think about more that just what I was learning. I had to start planing ahead, create a narrative and think about what kind of puzzles the game was going to have. Since it was still going to be a small game I just double the rooms to 4. I started to think more about what kind of environment it was going to be and more importantly who the main character was going to be and how they were going to interact with the environment. And then something interesting happened. I ran out of tutorial. The person who was writing the blog kinda stopped halfway through and hadn’t updated in years. I was on my own, but thankfully I had enough of a foundation to work out the rest for myself. It pushed me to be a better coder and to learn how to solve problems myself.

So far I had been writing and designing pretty much in a vacuum. I wanted to change that so I reached out to a few other devs for advice and got a few replies which were very helpful. I spend my spare time at home, which was getting less and less, working towards an alpha, then beta. I eventually released a beta on itch.io and asked for player feedback and was lucky to get some good responses. From there it’s a lot like work, you’ve just got to keep going, fixing bugs and adding final content. If nothing else, I learned that motivation is never gotta get you to the finish line, even on something you love. When I was reaching the end of developing the mechanics and most of the narrative I reached out once again to a few devs on what I should be doing to polish the game. It turned out to be a lot of mundane stuff I hadn’t really thought about. A menu system, credits, a manual, options, that sort of thing. I was so wrapped up in the simple mechanics of the game I’d forgotten to think about what would make it a product, instead of just the results of a jam session.

Throughout all of this I had been wondering what I’d call the game. I really liked the main character, her vulnerability and her capability. To me she felt human and a little bit real. She was the player too, so she had a direct effect on the environment around her. I had specifically shied away from giving much in the way of description of her so people could fill in the blanks themselves, and maybe connect a bit more with the young woman who had found herself caught in terrible situation. Maybe that’s why I called her Willow, and the game The Willow Effect. Another way for me to remember her, and other people, even if they don’t realise it.

It’s kind of funny in a way, after I’d named the game, and the protagonist, how much more personal it had become. I didn’t just want it to be the best game I could make (even though it was just my first game), I needed it to be the best game I could make. I put more time into polishing it and tidying up mechanics and trying to find every eventuality and add in new interesting interactions that I’m a bit ashamed to say that my Wife felt a little neglected. I don’t think to this day that I could really explain to her what this meant to me on a personal level, so much more than just a fun or interesting project.

And it definitely helped to spur me to finish it. I have a string of half finished projects sitting on my computer for various media. But this was one I would finish. With the help of a lot of people – including my wonderful Wife who was surprised she could finish the game even though she never plays them – I did finish it. I released The Willow Effect: Prologue on the itch.io platform on the 2nd of June 2015 and I’m very proud to have done so. It’s a pretty niche game but still gets the odd download. And every time it does I get a buzz that someone will share in a part of what makes me, and I hope it makes them happy.

I’m currently working on a few ongoing projects. The text adventure tutorial for beginners, a procedural generator for space stations and an arcade shoot em up where you don’t have any guns, the bad guys do though! There will be more installments to The Willow Effect, I have plenty of plans and when I get back to them, I’ll have much more skill to bring to the table to realise them. If there’s one series I’d want to bring my best to, it’s The Willow Effect.