Morphopolis is a hidden object adventure game set in a fantastical insect world, by Micro Macro Games, and is a collaboration between illustrator Ceri Williams and animator/programmer Dan Walters. The player takes the role of an aphid grub that changes form through a cannibalistic control of dead insects in their quest to rescue their companion. Dan explains how they brought their vision to life.
An Illustrated World
The most powerful element of Morphopolis is the idea of entering an illustrated world. The ability to control, move, and interact with an illustration instantly transforms the player from observer to protagonist. Authorship is shared as the illustration changes, offering the viewer a much deeper and involved experience. In return, the responsibility of interaction must be accepted and the pace must be controlled. Interaction is distinctly different to observation.
When Ceri Williams and I started Morphopolis, we wanted to create a game for people who loved illustration. This worked really well, as not only were we essentially creating a game for ourselves, but we could engage with like-minded people, and offer interactivity to a traditionally static discipline. There were games we loved and admired (Machinarium, The Tiny Bang Story), and appreciated the importance of a illustrated identity. The style of the game had to be our own.
All the illustrations of our game were done by hand, with a set type of ink drafting pen on tracing paper, to ensure consistency between drawings. The hand-drawn style was partly because of our ambition to create something personal, where the hand-drawn aesthetic creates a sense of care and process. The larger factor was probably that Ceri is a traditional-type illustrator, having not created illustration digitally before. All illustration was created to the same scale, then digitally reduced when added into the game. Ink wash textures were created to add texture to the white bodies of the graphics, while much of the color is added in Photoshop.
The goal was to create originality. To do this, I wanted to close my eyes to the game world and look else-where. I approached Ceri with the project because he was not a games person – he lived entirely in the world of design, architecture, and illustration. He has high creative output and because of this, he thinks a lot about his own work, perhaps living in his own world more than anyone else’s. There is a unique character to his work that I wanted to introduce to gamers.
While we started off looking at a large pool of inspiration and reference material, this was eventually discarded in favor of Ceri’s natural style. There was a huge expense in creating a new style in terms of work velocity. In the end, this resulted in a more personal product. Narrative and animation were also bigger inspirations than games and game-play itself. Animated films such as Princess Mononoke played the greatest inspiration, and it was the concept of bringing a part of that type of world and narrative to interactive media that drove the project.
So Much to Do, So Little Time
As with many projects, the significance of the amount of content required was grossly under-estimated, and I would never recommend such a content-centered game ever be attempted by such a small team. Combined with a basis of narrative, the initial project goals and timescale were unrealistic. After our initial commitment of eight man-weeks, we had thrown a lot out and had little that represented a game, but did have the basis of a tool-set and design that was very accurate and the work ahead seemed mostly a content-creation exercise.
The programming requirements were also surprisingly high. The game has been built for full HD graphics, which, when considering that the scenes are layered and composed of many parts, becomes a very demanding problem. There is also a huge variety and customization of behavior which has had a high programming cost.
As for design, deadlines and promotion had the greatest effect on progression. We exhibited at Rezzed this summer, and the deadline of presenting our game was a huge motivator. Since then, we have continually made sure we had others depending on us in order to make sure there was always a little bit of pressure.
Building the Right Tools
There is a technical nature to interactive media that requires an awareness of real-time graphics and the limitations of computers in this regard. Images must be of certain sizes and shapes, scenes must be composited in a certain way, and animations must be built with play-back in mind. We were able to develop tools that allowed us to work the way we wanted to, and automated many of the technical tasks involved. Building our own art pipeline was critical in defining Morphopolis‘ personal style and visual nature.
We developed two custom tools – an animation authoring tool, and a scene authoring tool. The animation tool is a well-featured utility that allows us to quickly assemble and animate our in game objects. This tool has proven to be fantastic; we got the feature set right, and it has been very fast to use. The scene tool rationalizes merging the many different types of object and behaviors into a single scene. This is a big tool, but breaks tasks down into layers, meaning you only have to think about a single aspect of a scene at a time when authoring the content, making it easier to get to grips with the tool.
In terms of design, we broke the game down into four main player interactions, allowing us to focus on these events. This hugely simplified the work required to design the game, transferring the onus of variation to the game content.
The final result is shaping into a product we are really proud of. The direction of the game has hugely changed, and the nature of narrative in the game has shifted from our original direction. We have had to remain agile as the game has grown, and been reactive to feedback and play testing. This process will continue up to and probably long after release.
For more information on Micro Macro Games, like them on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter. Morphopolis is now available here for Windows, Mac OSX, Linux, Android, iOS, Windows Phone 8, Blackberry and Kindle Fire.