(some of) What Clat Learned
...about Age Building as a team

Age building is not a solo endeavour. A single person can make an Uru-looking place, and many fine examples do exist, albeit relatively small and/or with a limited amount of detail. But if we want a decent size age, with a credible story, interesting characters and some functional puzzles, we are looking at a huge amount of work. Cyan's original Uru-ABM ages were built by a group of professionals working full time for months. If the numbers we know are correct, we're talking about fifty professionals working for three months on each age, adding up to a grand total of around 24,000 man-hours. A single "age-writer" working in her/his free time for a dozen hours each and every week (on long-term a very good average) would be looking at a staggering 38 years of work!

If that's not enough, "age writing" as depicted in Uru has nothing to do with real world age building. We don't use a quill pen dipped in magic ink, but many different tools, each one requiring its own know-how and its own talent. Some of the people at hand may already had developed their talent, but others will have to learn from scratch, or to perfect what they already knew into something useful. Typical of this idea is 3d modelling. Most people willing to learn "The Art" immediately think of learning digital modelling. Mastering any good modelling software is not easy task, the learning curve being always quite steep. But even an expert modeller may have a tough time in adapting to the specific needs and limitations of Uru's game engine. The same is true for people working on texts, on design, on sounds, on textures and decals, on puzzles and animations, on everything. Each "specialist" must learn to work in Uru, and live with a lot of complications. Just think about the in-game and technical aspects of multiplayer puzzle solving and ages instancing!

Probably, an ideal age building team exists in theory only, but how realistic should one be? To make an educated guess, we must start by listing the talents and competences that are surely needed.

  1. ) Story writing.
  2. ) Writing in-game texts (to be read, or played by a npc).
  3. ) Object design, and concept art.
  4. ) 3d modelling: objects, buildings and landscapes.
  5. ) Texture and decal-making (2d files).
  6. ) Animations.
  7. ) Sound.
  8. ) Music: composing music, playing, and recording, plus lyrics and singing in the case of songs.
  9. ) Acting (giving voice to a npc).
  10. ) Puzzle design.
  11. ) Programming.
  12. ) Coordinating all the above.

To round off the list, we'll need some expert beta-testers, but it is usually wise to have people from outside the team doing the testing.

Now, take a second look at the list. Of course, you can have a single person covering more than just one task, and more than one person to cope with a single task (look at number 8 - music - for instance). Moreover, not all tasks require the same amount of time, or are equally labour-intensive. Making a good 2d decal with Photoshop or Gimp can require a lot of time. After a modeller completes an object, more work is needed to apply often-complex textures, with light and shadows on top of these.

Enough theory, let's see how our Adrael team formed up, and how it changed in time. It was - and still is - an interesting experiment, from which others could take advantage.

The Adrael team began with just two people: Boblishman doing the modelling and texturing, and me for writing and designing everything (plus some decal making). A little later, D'Lanor added his expertise with programming, and Emor D'ni Lap doubled the modelling forces, while contributing valuable experience with animations.

In a sense, it was a lucky combination. It was a bare minimum team, just enough to be capable of keeping the work going, with little time and incentive for futile discussions. As already said, I was responsible for the story but, with all my experience as a professional writer I didn't know enough about the Uru engine and playing mechanisms. For a long time, I went along asking for impossible things, then changing puzzles and adapting story to the real-world necessities, learning to swim while avoiding drowning.

As far as the design was concerned, I kept the pace with enough sketches for everyone, but my arts were never considered untouchable. At times, objects had to be adapted to keep efficiency in modelling, other times changes were suggested by the modeller's creativity and ingenuity, and anyone was free to propose completely new objects. This freedom was surely beneficial for the good harmony of the group, and for the overall quality and originality of the final result.

This first period can be summarized as follows:
With so many things to be done, no time was wasted in discussing the story. Besides, the main characters (the dead tree, the missing scientist and the Spirit) caught the fancy of all involved.

The project participants were complementary enough to work together without the need to discuss and assign specific responsibility or establish a rigid hierarchy. There was not much need for coordination, and this was in part due to the very architecture of Adrael, divided in four separate places and many smaller sections.

While Adrael began to take shape, other people came along.
In alphabetical order the newcomers were: DatokerJ, Kira, Lyllus, SeryousYew, Simone and Szark, all of them mainly contributing with 3d models. Here a first conclusion can be drawn: a single designer can be enough, but more than one modeller is highly desirable. If our team had a weak point it was in the making of original textures and decals. This is a surprisingly big task, time-consuming and often overlooked. D'ni ages, you know, are very highly decorated, and creating in-game details while maintaining efficiency (read: keeping texture files to minimal megabytes) requires experience, creativity and lot of hard work.

Lyllus brought along not only his modelling ability, but also his expertise with animation and his talent as musician-singer. Talking of animations, Adrael has three cut-scenes essential to age solving. One was contributed by Emor D'ni Lap and two by Lyllus. A fourth animation (again by Emor) lights up the age finale, together with a title song performed again by Lyllus. In these cases, Emor and Lyllus completed their job alone, and here another conclusion can be drawn: any age offers space for personal creation and satisfaction.

With the team grown in numbers and age in complexity, we began to experience some difficulties in coordination. At some point I was officially appointed as "age coordinator", and this surely made sense as I had a broad view of the whole Adrael story, characters and puzzles. However, coordinating requires a talent of its own, and here Sophia was of enormous assistance, even without any formal investiture.
Still another conclusion: any group needs a person able to settle disagreements and keep spirits high. This is more important, I think, than a powerful commander.

Our team acquired still another contributor: Amethyst. Our story's lost scientist, Irena Stromberg, makes an appearance in the age's final area. We needed a female voice with a north-European accent, and as she's from Sweden, Amethyst stepped up and had enough courage to try acting. She persevered, and after several takes and with some studio assistance from D'Lanor, in the end we had an interesting performance. What it loses in dramatization, it gains in truthfulness. After all, Irena was a scientist, not an actress!

Here's one of the most important lessons coming from Adrael: having previous experience surely helps, but what really makes the difference are patience and perseverance. Anyone can start from zero and learn enough to make a valuable contribution.

With most of the age assets technically complete, we entered a new phase of age building: revision and visual refinishing. There, we found that not all our team was well suited for the task. Some of us simply had not much interest in this job, and mostly viewed these tedious tasks as a waste of time. I'm not saying that their opinions were wrong, but the fact remains that they left the team. The final lesson is simple: be prepared for changes and setbacks. Someone goes, someone comes, someone changes his role.

As for me, having completed my job in design and writing texts, I'm now free to work on adding textures and to learn some rudiments of 3d modelling. Learning how to model will surely help me as a designer, and here we finally come to the bottom line: the real goal of age building is not building itself, but learning. And having a lot of fun!

Our team is presently much smaller, but we are still working steadily. I'll keep this report updated, and will complete it after the final release of Adrael.

Clat, April 2011