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Interview with Alkis Polyrakis on Diamonds in the Rough

Developer:Atropos Studios
Release Date:Fall 2007

If you play independent freeware adventure games on a regular basis, you will have more than likely come across Other Worlds, a title developed by Alkis Polyrakis. Released in late 2004, Other Worlds perhaps did not score points for groundbreaking graphics, but it did impress quite a few gamers with its interesting story, colorful characters, and entertaining challenges. And now, Alkis Polyrakis is back to design his second game. But things will be a little different this time around.

Early in April 2006, Alkis and his teammates officially launched an independent adventure game development company called Atropos Studios. The company seeks to deliver quality adventure games with an emphasis on story, interesting characters, and inventory-based puzzles. The development team is already hard at work on their first project, called Diamonds in the Rough.

The adventure game will tell the story of Jason Hart. A young man with exceptional gifts, Jason is approached by the mysterious Diamonds in the Rough organization. The organization is actively recruiting individuals with powers like telekinesis or telepathy. Even though he does not fully understand the nature of the work he will be doing, Jason accepts the job offer and moves to a town in the Midwest. But what exactly is Jason supposed to do for Diamonds in the Rough? Who are the people operating the organization? What is their true agenda? It will be up to Jason to unlock the mystery.

As Atropos Studios continues the development efforts on Diamonds in the Rough, we conducted an extensive interview with Alkis to find more about his new company and his current project. Alkis kindly provided us with a great deal of information while telling us a little about his prior experiences with adventure games as well. Here’s the interview:

[Adventure Lantern]: Can you tell us about how you got interested in adventure gaming in the first place? What was the first one you played? What was it that you like about the genre?
[Alkis Polyrakis]: Unfortunately, I can’t recall the first adventure game I ever played. It was a text adventure 20 years ago (I was 11) on a Spectrum ZX+. I remember starring at a black screen with white letters for a long time, before I realized the game was waiting for me to type something. I noticed something about some keys on the ground, so I typed very carefully “take the keys”. The response “Taken” (or something of the sort) gave me the goosebumps, and from that moment I was hooked with adventure games and never looked back.

The first one I completed was The Hobbit by Beam Software. At first I was intrigued by being able to “communicate” with the computer so to speak, as for the first time I was able to type in English instead of programming. Later on, it was the challenge of solving puzzles that made me love the genre.

[AL]: How did you feel about the transition from text adventures to graphical ones?
[AP]: Most of us who were around at the time will tell you that it felt like we were witnessing technology at its very peak! But to me the most important transition was when the first games in which you didn't have to type at all came out, the first icon-driven adventures by ICOM and Lucasfilms. I admit I still miss the parser sometimes, and I wonder why we never saw more games that tried to include both an icon-driven system AND a text parser, like Leisure Suit Larry VII.

[AL]: What made you get into game development? Can you tell us a little about the experience of making Other Worlds?
[AP]: Ever since I’ve started playing adventure games, I wondered what it would be like to create one. I decided to make Other Worlds as a gift to my girlfriend (at the time). The project started as a text adventure for the Amiga in 1997; I was using the fantastic ADMS script language at the time. However, I abandoned it after a few months because I realized it wasn't going to be played by enough people to justify the hard work I was putting into it. A few years later, I learned about the Adventure Game Studio engine by Chris Jones. I decided to try it and I was very pleased to find out that it was by far the best engine ever created for the purpose.

The experience was very stressing but also very rewarding. I didn’t expect to ever make another game, so I wanted it to be as good and lasting as possible; that is why it ended up being so huge. It took me 3.5 years to finish it, and it was worth every second.

[AL]: Did you have anyone else help you with the development efforts or was this entirely a one-man show?
[AP]: I did everything myself, but I took the background graphics, music and sound effects from wherever I could find them on the internet (after asking for permission when possible).

[AL]: Do you remember how you felt after finally completing the game and the first few people started downloading it? What was the initial feedback like?
[AP]: First I was amazed by the numbers... more than two thousand people downloaded it within the first three weeks. The initial feedback was very enthusiastic, which of course felt good but I thought people were just trying to be nice. What really made me feel good about myself was the positive feedback I got from the first people who *completed* Other Worlds. I know it's a very long game so I doubt anyone would complete it if they didn't like it. In fact, I have yet to receive negative feedback from anyone who played the game to the end; most of those who didn't like it had abandoned it after a few minutes, due to the outdated graphics, which is understandable. But those who decided to tolerate them and not let go of the game until the final credits were more than satisfied.

[AL]: Some time after releasing Other Worlds, you took a break from your development efforts. What was the cause of this? What made you come back?
[AP]: I wasn’t thinking of it as a break at the time. I never intended to create another game. But after some point, I couldn’t continue ignoring how well Other Worlds had been received. All those positive reviews and literally thousands of e-mails from people who enjoyed it (and still do) made me reconsider. I received feedback from players from all over the world; the youngest of them was 12 years old and the oldest one 81. They all said pretty much the same thing: that they enjoyed what I had given them for free much more than some titles they had had to pay for. A simple question rose to my mind then: If an amateur game with horrible graphics appealed to so many people, what would happen if I decided to create a professional title? That was when I decided to found my own adventure game developing company.

[AL]: Can you describe the transition from developing an independent freeware product to commercial adventure games?
[AP]: The main difference lies in the way I work. The former was a hobby I was doing alone during my leisure time. The latter is a work project, with a budget, a team of colleagues and deadlines. What does not change is how much I am enjoying the developing process, and how I am not prepared to betray my beliefs in what makes a good game just to sell more copies.

[AL]: And what would you say it is that makes a good adventure game?
[AP]: A good, original story that ventures to be controversial and different instead of going for the usual Atlantis-Egypt-Murder-Curse etc. popular, yet overused ideas. Challenging, mostly inventory based puzzles. Plenty of character and environment interaction; respect the player and give him more than just an arrow and 1-2 hotspots per screen. Adventure game players are not idiots, so you should not insult their intelligence by giving them puzzles a 12-year old can solve. You must be able to challenge and surprise them. Meaningful dialogue, plot twists and last but not least, NO ACTION SEQUENCES.

[AL]: Can you tell us about your new company, Atropos Studios? What kind of a team is behind the games you will be developing? How has the experience been so far? What were some of the challenges?
[AP]: The biggest challenge of all was finding the right associates, in order to compose a team of experienced and enthusiastic members who could fit in our budget, which as I’m sure you understand is not unlimited for that first game of ours. At this point I would like to express my sincere gratitude to my good friend Agustin Cordes from Nucleosys, who offered me some valuable advice, not to mention a list of contacts.

The team currently consists of a product manager, a project manager, a marketing consultant, two graphics artists, a music composer, a sound engineer, a scientific committee, several voice actors and myself (story and programming). The scientific committee consists of specialists of different backgrounds (engineering, medicine, history etc.) who make sure that everything in the script is correct from a scientific point of view. Last but not least, we have a number of beta testers of varying gaming experience.

The experience so far has been flawless and I consider myself lucky to be working with such a capable and friendly crew.

[AL]: What is your goal with Atropos Studios? What do you see as the focus of your projects?
[AP]: Our goal is to create quality adventure games, keeping in mind the values that made the genre popular during its golden era (late 80s – early 90s). We do not believe that the genre has to change in order to evolve; we believe in the modernization rather than in the degeneration of adventure games.

[AL]: Can you give me an example of the kind of modernization you are trying to achieve? Does it mostly have to do with the technologies involved rather than the style of the games?
[AP]: Mostly yes, but not exclusively. The Thoughts Panel for instance, which I will explain in detail later, is an innovation that will instantly feel familiar to the player. It's new, it's modern, but it's not different than what you are used to. These are the sort of ideas the genre needs, all in my humble opinion of course.

[AL]: Could you provide an overview of your first project, Diamonds in the Rough? What can you tell us about the story?
[AP]: Diamonds in the Rough will be a 3rd person, point & click adventure game. The story is about a group of young people who are hired by an ambiguous organization thanks to their paranormal skills. You will assume the role of Jason Hart, who will eventually try to unveil what the intentions of his employers are. I’m not willing to reveal much more on the storyline at this point, but I can say that it will be a fantasy game that focuses on the dark side of the human soul.

[AL]: What was the inspiration behind the storyline? Are there any works of literature or other adventure games that influenced the plot?
[AP]: Not really. The Thoughts Panel was inspired by the ‘Notepad’ feature in Discworld Noir, although it’s used in a very different way. But I can’t say the story was consciously inspired by anything I’ve ever read or played.

[AL]: What can you tell us about the main character Jason Hart?
[AP]: Jason begins the game as an average 20 year old, who hadn’t given his future much thought before he was approached by Diamonds in the Rough. Until then, he used to live in a small town with his mother. He’s a loner by nature and he doesn’t make friends easily. He has a kind of raw intelligence of which, much like his ‘special skills’, he’s not even aware. Overall, Jason starts off as a simple, innocent young man, but expect him to change dramatically before you see the end of the game.

[AL]: Who are some of the other characters that will be part of the game?
[AP]: I’ll describe two of them for you:

William is a middle age guy who works for DITR and he is the first to approach Jason. He’s enigmatic by nature and it’s always hard to figure out his true feelings about anything. As Jason’s parents divorced when he was still a child, William will soon become his father figure. He seems to be a very wise man and most DITR employees look up to him.

Sydelle is a shy, sweet 25 year old girl. She likes Jason more than anyone else who lives in the town that serves as the company’s premises. She has been working for DITR for a year, and she doesn’t like talking about her past. In some ways, she’s as much a mystery as William.

[AL]: What can you tell us about the mysterious organization Diamonds in the Rough?
[AP]: DITR was founded by a woman called Corinne Feller in 1989. Feller passed away a few years later, but others decided to continue her work. Their official purpose is to locate people with paranormal abilities, recruit them, confine them in a secure environment and study them out of scientific interest. Whether that is all they do or not is a question that torments our hero.

[AL]: What kind of missions would Jason be undertaking for this organization?
[AP]: All they ask him to do is to concentrate on a list of numbers and choose one of them.

[AL]: How will Diamonds in the Rough play? What kind of an adventure gaming experience does the game seek to provide?
[AP]: Diamonds in the Rough will play like the early 90s 3rd person point & click adventure games, which means that you should not expect an all-purpose cursor, empty landscapes and reduced difficulty. Instead, the game will feature multiple cursors, plenty of character interaction, descriptions for every item on the screen and a great number of challenging, mostly inventory-based puzzles. Puzzles are very important to us, and our goal will be to implement a successful ratio of easy, medium and hard tasks that will reward the experienced players without discouraging the new ones.

[AL]: Can you tell me a little bit about how you try and gauge the difficulty of the various challenges?
[AP]: A puzzle's difficulty is judged by a number of factors: the number of items required for you to solve it, the number of characters you need to contact, the hints provided that will point you to the right direction and *when* they were provided (should you remember something vital in a conversation early in the game?). Easy puzzles are only there to make the player feel good and move on with the story without much trouble. For example, an easy puzzle is when you are in need of an item a character has, and that character clearly hints what you have to give him to take it. Medium difficulty puzzles require combinational thinking, as the answer is not directly in front of your eyes. Hard puzzles will make you proud of solving them; you will only do that if you carefully follow the story and understand the characters and their relations. The beta testers, who vary from newbies to hard core adventures, are responsible for determining whether a puzzle if too unfair or illogical and needs to be better hinted at, or removed completely.

[AL]: What are some of the things that will set Diamonds in the Rough apart from other adventure games?
[AP]: First of all, the story, which will be deeper and more complex than the ones we usually witness in adventure games. We will be dealing with some controversial issues that, as far as I know, have not been discussed in any other computer games. I also believe the Thoughts Panel will be an innovation that will enhance the gaming experience greatly.

[AL]: The official Web site tells us we will have access to Jason's thoughts. Can you describe how this is going to work?
[AP]: The Thoughts Panel is easy to learn, but complicated to explain in detail; I will do my best.

Think of it as a second inventory. As you progress in the game, new thoughts are added and old thoughts disappear. A simple thought is a character's name, for instance. A more complex one can be a situation, like a meeting Jason just had or something he saw.

Thoughts can be:
- Examined (example: click on a name and Jason will tell you what he thinks about that person at the time)
- Combined (example: use a name on a situation and Jason will think if there's a connection between them)
- Used anywhere else in the game, just like inventory items (example: use a situation on a person and the person may tell you something about it)

Successful use of any of the above may open a new location ("I'd better go ask X what he thinks of that"), trigger something somewhere else in the game, or even make Jason think of something new (a new thought will be added).

I like to think that the Thoughts panel will make Jason seem more real, instead of a marionette that obeys to the player's wishes. Plus, it should create some original puzzles.

[AL]: What kind of challenges can the players expect to encounter?
[AP]: The players should not expect to solve the game by brute force (trying everything on everything). Due to the increased number of items, hotspots and thoughts, that would be impossible. Instead, they will need to *become* Jason, start thinking what they’d do had they been in his shoes in order to progress. I’d say the game’s difficulty will higher than the one of most recent titles, but none of the puzzles will be impossible to solve by logic.

[AL]: How far is the Atropos Studios team in the development process? Do you have a release date you can share with us?
[AP]: We’re still fairly early in the development process. The game is expected to be released by fall 2007.

[AL]: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
[AP]: Dear AL readers, some of you may have noticed that more and more independent developers have decided to take matters in their own hands and create quality adventure games. I humbly ask you to have faith in them and support them. Companies like Nucleosys, Himalaya Studios, Pan Metron Ariston, and Track7 Games to name a few daily prove that you don’t need a million dollars to make something good.

I would also like to thank you, Ugur, for a very interesting interview and wish you every success in the future.

Adventure Lantern thanks Alkis for providing us detailed information about Atropos Studios and the company’s first adventure game.

It looks like adventure gamers can expect a solid storyline from Diamonds in the Rough. It should be interesting to discover the true nature of the mysterious organization and see how Jason’s objectives will change as a result of his findings. Gamers should also expect a solid challenge from Diamonds in the Rough. Atropos Studios seems to be bent on making sure we’ll be spending quite a few hours overcoming the game’s puzzles. Atropos Studios seems to have the potential to deliver quite an entertaining adventure game. While it is still too early to pass judgment on the project, Diamonds in the Rough may be worth putting on the radar.

If you want to find out more about Atropos Studios or Diamonds in the Rough, check out the company’s official site at www.atropos-studios.com.