Developer Blog

Thu

05

Sep

2013

Android Version Incoming

We should be wrapping up and submitting Android versions sometime next week and will keep people up to date on progress. This includes the Kindle Fire for all you Amazon fans out there. We also will have a pretty exciting video showing something we've done with the game soon as well.

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Wed

27

Mar

2013

Out now in New Zealand?

So apparently the app is out and processing in the New Zealand store right now. It will be interesting to see if we hear anything until our "official" launch tonight. I can only assume other territories will go live before the U.S. one as the day moves on. Hopefully feedback is good. We'll see...

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Tue

26

Mar

2013

The Secret Castle soundtrack available this week

I've mentioned in other blog posts that we were lucky enough to get Christ Rickwood to compose all the music for the game. He's worked on Madden, Orcs Must Die, and Tribes as well as a ton of other stuff. He's going to be selling the soundtrack to the game at launch on bandcamp. Be sure to search for it bandcamp, check back here, or visit his site www.rickwoodmusic.com.
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Tue

26

Mar

2013

Launching this week on the 28th (hopefully)

We are still waiting on a the in-purchase call to be "approved" by Apple but we are hoping for a launch this week that involves one universal version of the game with the first two levels free. It's great to finally let everyone play the whole thing from beginning to end. I'll warn you, it ends on a bit of a cliff hanger. There are quite a few mysteries that are resolved but hopefully this does well enough to have a sequel or two.
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Wed

21

Nov

2012

Music of The Secret Castle

I wanted to finally mention the new composer for The Secret Castle. A while back I realized that unlike art and programming, I had for some reason convinced myself I could write reasonable music for the game. As the quality of everything else continued to rise the music and sound stayed flat and amateurish.

 

Thankfully we were able to get the help of Chris Rickwood. Not only is Chris a well known industry professional with a incredible wide range of style, he's also extremely well known in the area for the vast amount of work he does for the small but thriving game community here in Atlanta.

 

Here's a sample of the wonderful work he's doing in The Secret Castle.

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Wed

10

Oct

2012

The New Trailer

Here's the launch trailer for the game. We're finally on the tail end of development and we're really excited about what's come from it. We'll have more in the next couple of days on features, pricing, release and possibly some giveaways.

 

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Tue

12

Jun

2012

Something New

There's been ton's of progress but as we've added numerous features to the game but everything seems to be sitting at about 85 percent done. I don't want to post any video on anything until it's finished so here's a screen shot from our level select menu. It's a hint on what to expect as far as the look and structure hopefully.

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Wed

25

Apr

2012

This Thing is Happening

So it's been over a month since an update and regardless of visits I don't like going that long. The short of it is that we rebuilt the majority of the game and added or refined numerous systems. This includes:

 

-A hint system

-More puzzles

-Sound effects

-A new zoom system

-A totally revamped editor (really big for me)

-A high end menu system

-A much deeper tutorial

 

We aren't going to just throw this out there without some decent testing but an early test really revealed that there isn't a point in releasing something with a bunch of reough edges unless you wan't a bunch of complaints on the app store.

 

There will be quite a few updates as well as a launch trailer in the next few weeks. I'm excited to really get this out there and see if this kind of game has a fanbase. 

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Wed

21

Mar

2012

Need a Hint?

So as we finish things up one piece of feedback that was happening was that a hint system needs to be in place if you get stuck and also to accomodate players of different skill levels. The first concern was how it would work in a 3D environment.

 

Fortunately our programmer took it upon himself to design and implement a system and it seems to work perfectly. We will still need to scale things in terms of hint number and reset time but it was extremely nice to have an entire system work wonderfully the first time out.

 

At this point there's very little guesswork and systems are getting implemented or refined. Still tracking to release in a few weeks but we'll have a better idea when the next round of internal testing starts.

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Wed

14

Mar

2012

The Last Ten Percent

Though the numbers may differ from person to person the idea is essentially the same. The last part of game development is in many ways the most critical and also the most taxing. We are technically art complete yet the team are doing small editions and revisions whenver they can. Many of our "finished" features are getting revisited for tweaking or even major adjustments.

 

One of the benefits of making a game with not as many moving parts is that it's not as dangerous or time consuming as if you were trying to rebalance a fighting game or retool all the stats in an RPG.

 

That said, the most difficult part of this process is that instead of implementing something and just saying that it works we have to look at everything and decide if it's good. It doesn't just need to work. It needs to be fun. The subjective nature of the whole process means you don't exactly know when it's finished. Again we benefit over other games because of what we're doing. If there's one thing a recent beta test helped with though it's confirming that the game is still complicated enough to warrant a clear and straightforward tutorial.

 

The good thing is that it's working. Thanks to some great feedback from testers and extremely hard work from our team the game is already performing much better as well as becoming much easier to play. Hopefully that translates into something that's more fun but we'll see soon enough.

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Fri

24

Feb

2012

Test Flight!

So we finally got a point where we can start sending the build out to people so if you are one of the ten people reading this blog send email us and we can potentially send you a preview build to give us some feedback.

 

More importantly I wanted to talk about the glory of Test Flight and Unity 3D. Basically Test Flight is an extraordinarily easy way to distribute apps across Apples clunky network that often requires physical access to devices, code signing, etc.

 

Unity 3D already does a good job so far building the app for distribution but that doesn't change the difficulty of using Apple's portal system for getting apps to your friends, family, and testers.

 

Basically here's how Test Flight works:

 

-send an invite to someone, they open the mail on their device, and it installs everything and reports device info to you.

 

-You use the UUID to provision the device in your provisioning portal.

 

-You upload a build to Test Flight, ADD DEV NOTES, and then send it off.

 

-Everyone gets an email that the app is avialable. They open the Test Flight app that was installed and install the listed app.

 

While I still need to try it on a few different devices I think its going to work well and the user/developer experience has so far been incredible.

 

 

 

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Wed

15

Feb

2012

Alpha Textures and Unity

SO basically throughout development we have had two major texture issues on random textures in the game.

 

1. the texture has a white outline on it

 

2. The texture has a line at the edge of it on the top, bottom or side of it.

 

The first issue is simply the texture editor (e.g. Photoshop) isn't doing all that great a job generating the Alpha. The good news is you can easily take control of the situation by generating your own Alpha. In photoshop it's as easy a saving a selection (in this case the entire image in a given layer) and then making that selection an Alpha, which happens when you load it.

 

The second issue is even better and is something Unity handles pretty well on it's own. Again, this is a case of an Alpha not wanting to display properly, often because the texture is too close to the edge of the image. In this instance all you need to do is choose Clamp from the Wrapping drop down in the inspector on any given texture to modify its import settings.

 

This ended up being a nice surprise as I thought these issues might take a lot of personal tweaking to get right and we're tracking pretty good for this thing to be done in a month.

 

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Wed

01

Feb

2012

Xcooooooooooooooode! (really just Apple in general)

So I'm operating off of about 2 hours of sleep after spending the evening trying to pair developer's certificates to apple Keychain authentication system. Honestly, I always think if I were just a programmer or engineer, I would be more analytical, and I would have fixed the problem a lot sooner.

 

It was really as simple as attaching the certificate AFTER I rebooted from generating the Keychain. Now that that is settled I can get back into the fun process of building and wondering why Unity absolutely obliterates some of my textures while making other look fantastic.

 

At least with that hurdle out of the way I can get back into actually building the game, not just building the .app file. We've completed some of the later levels so I'm going to start tonight and just go in order from level 2 on. By the end of the month it'll be done...I hope.

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Wed

25

Jan

2012

Editing Fonts

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Tue

24

Jan

2012

Progress!

So we are finally done with the cutscene system and now we are just adding all this amazing content that has been piling up over the last year. Seriously, we have almost 100 pieces of art (way more if you look at them as components, which is necessary for the 3D system) and I'm so excited to just start building everything. Of course there's a few tweaks here or there. I'm using a font editor (more on that in the next post) to change some characters and I've also got make a few passes at the font size to see what's the best fit but most of the stuff is just ready!

 

Here's proof:

 

 

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Mon

09

Jan

2012

The Cast of The Secret Castle

Jonas Lyons

As things continue to move forward with The Secret Castle I figured it was time to actually start talking about the story in the game. People have been asking more and more about what the actual plot is and who you "play" as so I'll try to cover some of that in this post.

 

Jonas Lyons is the main character of the story. He's not quite a loner but definitely not the outgoing type, mainly due to all the moving he's done with his mom in order to find a new job. Jonas has learned not to get too attached to things as he never knows when he'll be moving again or where he'll be going. Not the type to get too emotional, he feels he's been dealt a particularly harsh hand with his latest home, which may be cursed as it's causing him to have strange dreams. 

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Thu

05

Jan

2012

New Day, New Texture Issues

So for some time now our GUI has had some strange issue where there was serious pixelization occuring on all GUI textures. The textures weren't that big so I was pretty sure it has to with the importer.

 

Now anyone working regularly in 3D games may find this kind of strange or kind of basic but there's a setting for anisotropic filtering, basically a process that smooths out lines on textures and helps lower pixelization. For some reason (hopefully not a good one) it's set to default at the lowest setting. Cranking it up improves it dramatically so as long as it doesn't hit performance than I think that's one more bug fixed.

 

Now it's on to fixing everything else.

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Sun

01

Jan

2012

New Year and New Launch Date

It's the first of the year and we are quickly closing in on the final release. As mentioned in the earlier post, when everyone is working on their weekends, those weekends can sometimes disappear and then the project is delayed. I still think this absolutely preferable to crunching through the evenings with the diminishing return of productive work but it does require us to move dates (again another luxury of self funded work).

 

That doesn't mean people are on break though, everyone is working on a pretty tight schedule and art is well on track to be finished at the end of the month. This covers the hidden objects, remaining panels, and never ending miscellaneous stuff that I try to cover but inevitably fail to capture.

 

There is of course also a great new swipe method which has the game 90% there for press preview and new music and text to have finished versions of the levels. As soon as we have a finished cutscene I'll post it so we can get some feedback on the story and characters.

 

Until then!

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Wed

28

Dec

2011

The Ups and Downs of Low Cost Development

I recently finished an interview with a pretty popular blog that discussed the ins and outs of indie development. In one of the questions I was asked what I would change if I could and I simply answered "money".

 

Actually, I elaborated a bit on what I would spend it on but you can read it when it comes out in a month. So far, The Secret Castle has been made on as low a budget as possible. It's pretty much built on the enthusiam of the team and the extreme kindness of some friends who have helped me out in different areas. From legal, to technical, to marketing, this game wouldn't even have a chance if some of things hadn't miraculously lined up.

 

So with all of these things hovering over me I started to wonder what my chances were with such a low budget and if there was another issue waiting to hit me in the face. We're super close to finishing the game but there's still some major things ahead like testing, optimization, deployment for reviews and previews, etc.

 

So are there benefits of having your development done on a "when available" basis? Well yeah, and they're huge.

 

First and foremost, as I look at all the small indie teams out there struggling to find a unique art style  and solid mechanics I realize how lucky I am to have such a talented team working on the project.  Let me put it this way, if I actually took a big loan to start a small business I probably couldn't afford these people. It's one thing to go and find some eager inviduals who want to make a video game, it's another to find incredibly good people who can elevate your idea above what you thought it was.

 

The other major advantage is that we don't owe anybody. Again, aside from a small loan I took for the absolute necessities, hardware for testing, a few software licenses, etc. There's not much money in this project. That means that it can essentially ship when it's done.

 

Now everyone on the team is probably a little fatigued after a year of working on weekends (I know I am) but I will say it's better than the horrible alternative that plagues most development; crunch time. Even small teams I know are entering crunch in order to meet a deadline and while it's a pretty normal part of the business it really isn't much of an option for us.

 

So I realized that in this project I could have either had amazing team members who dedicated their free time to make this thing a reality while working around their schedules or I could find people who  had nothing but free time but likely little to know experience. In the end I'm extremely happy with my decision to search out people who I think would really contribute to the project and make it something special.

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Fri

23

Dec

2011

Unity and Texture Compression

Despite my limited technical background I figured I would post another piece on working with Unity. One of the benefits of Unity, and it is a HUGE benefit, is that it will just automatically build to whatever device you have plugged up. I can have it build to the iPod or iPad 2 and it will make all the decisions on textures, lights, etc. The only problem isn't doesn't always make the best decisions.

 

Basically it will do a few things. The trickiest is that it will create highly different quality versions of textures and then associate them with different levels of performance. Right now our levels look great if we load the highest rez textures, but oddly enough a few items in our rooms never get uprezzed and stay hideous regardless of the setting.

 

The other weird thing is that some of the texutres automatically load ugly versions, tbough I may know the answer to that particular issue. In the end it's a super small price to pay for such a great cross platform development system but it's also a reminder that if you really are going to build to a variety of devices there is no easy way out.

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Fri

23

Dec

2011

Empty or Efficient?

I'm working on the music for the game and I didn't want to totally phone it in but I also don't have the time (or probably skill) for what I would consider an elegant and complex composition. I originally was gunning for Kow Otani and Shadow of the Colossus but have pretty much turned to a mix of Tomohito Nishiura (Professor Layton) and Gary Shyman (Bioshock).

 

I've been trying to drop the percussion from all the music and now I'm tryng to look for instruments that will accent the pieces. I'm going to try and cap out all music at four instruments max per piece. I've been working music for one of the levels and have the two core instruments in place; a harp and viola. Strings will be used in most of the music to give the game some level of theme but it's the other instruments that I hope can be unique to each level.

 

Here's the first pass at the music I mentioned. What instruments do you think you would help give the piece an identity? Is it too simple or just properly efficient?

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Thu

22

Dec

2011

Go Big or Go Everywhere

One of the things that has generally stayed true about The Secret Castle throughout development is that the game surprises people. The 3D system really takes people aback and get's them interested in the overall concept. This works incredible well and when people ask what it's going to run I usually respond "stuff you can hold in your hands". That's still true and everytime I say it I wonder if that answer is ultimately a limiting factor.

 

When you look at games from Pop Cap or even Big Fish these days you can see the designs being molder to suit pretty much every device imaginable. This increases the market in ways that are extremely significant but it also means that the design ultimately has to be based around the lowest common denominator.

 

That's not to say that Pop Cap games are poorly designed, that would be a foolish statement. That does mean though that any competitor has to compete against all their resources on fairly common ground (control pads, touch screens, etc.). This is a pretty intimidating tasks and one of the reasons I made The Secret Castle the way I did.

 

By creating a design the intimately works with the technology (acceloromer and movable screen) I hoped (and still hope) that The Secret Castle is willing to own a market that usually isn't so agressively pursued in that way. It's really an all or nothing with the game, outside of a view creative ways it might work with Kinnect, and so it's going to live or die on the phones and tablets.

 

Ultimately I think it was a good decision to design a game that wouldn't really port to PC because those are extremely competitive markets when it comes to traditional design. If The Secret Castle is successful, I suspect we'll see clones of the game system in other games and genres and hopefully an exploration of this concept.

 

I'm not worried though, if 3D hidden object games become a crowded genre, I have plenty of other crazy ideas I'm dying to to try.

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Sun

18

Dec

2011

A four hour game in a sea of endless runners

The Secret Castle, compared to many mobile games, is going to be kinda short. The goal of The Secret Castle is a little different than most games. The game tells a straight story and gives you an experience unlike any other. We want you talk about the game when your done, talk about the experience, the story, the graphics, etc. But we really do want you to finish the game.

 

While I really see the value in endless game loops and hundres of levels I ultimately feel that there's so much competition there that we really couldn't compete. I hope that when the game is over the player will want to know what happens next to Jonas and what kind of puzzles this type of game can have in the sequel.

 

While we have shown a good amount of stuff on this game I don't really want people thinking this game is a known quanity. Heck, as far as I know it's the only hidden object game with a boss fight....

 

And so that's The Secret Castle, a different game, with different goals, and hopefully the first of many of its' kind.

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Sat

17

Dec

2011

Marketing after launch?

I was posting in a forum on Touch Arcade the other day talking to other indie devs about the extremely daunting and intimidating task of marketing an app. While I'm extremely excited and grateful about an article we'll have on the game soon (more on that later) I really need to buy into my own advice and realize that after launch the real marketing begins.

 

This is due to a few reasons in my humble and possibly naive opinion.

 

1. The democritization of content means that since everyone can be in the app store that word of mouth and quality really will impact long term sales. I'm using the term "quality" in terms of innovation, production value, playability, etc. Not just if the thing runs or has a title screen.

 

2. Most devs know this but honestly it's kinda hard to deploy test/preview builds. For one it's just hard because like us, most games are made about small teams who barely have the time to make the game, not just build a separate build for press. Secondly, a downside of Apple's streamlines store means that getting an app in an i-device halfway across the country involves long serial numbers or entirely custom workarounds.

 

3. Keeping people's attention is it's own challenge when you made a 3-5 hour game that's designed to be finished (That's my next blog post). Most apps are designed to have endless grind loops or 1000 levels that all just sort of run together. We didn't do that so ultimately we'll need to start talking about free levels and content the minute we see some interest. I can see how it's probably easier to talk about your game when people can actually buy it and your telling them free stuff is coming.

 

 

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Wed

14

Dec

2011

Level 1 Almost Complete

Level one is almost complete with only some hidden objects and dialogue left be added. I'm sure I'll end up doing one more pass at lighting but I'm pretty happy with the effects and and layout of objects at this point.

 

Level one is kinda fun because it starts you right into the story. With a mobile a game I didn't want a bunch of mysteries and vagueness. The Secret Castle is a fantasy game plain and simple. So every time you read something, find something, or go somewhere you know it's following one big story thread.

 

Anyway, here's the latest (and close to final) screenshot of the children's room. I'll be adding this detail into the rest of the levels over the next couple of weeks to get it to this level but ultimately I'm very happy that we got this kind of detail considering we were always in unknown territory performance wise.

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Tue

13

Dec

2011

Lightmapping Cardboard

Almost have level 1 complete and the Beast lightmapping plugin has been indespensable in creating a cool mood for our game. Because of the unique nature of our game though, lightmapping has also been a special challenge as well.

 

The main problem has been that most of the elements in our game are just 2d planes put at different levels of depth. Technically, our whole game is essentially nothing but planes moving around but that's some magic I'll let our programmer explain at some point.

 

Because our game objects are all essentially cardboard cutouts though we essentially need to light each individual object to give them highlights or lowlights. If a point light is behind the object it doesn't catch any light (and it shouldn't) but to give the illusion these things are there they need to be lit.

 

Fortunately beast has not only been easy to use but pretty quick and powerful. If we had created our own engine I don't think we could have used something so well done. If this game does well we may be inclined to look at Unreal development kit but so far Unity has been so good to us I don't see why would leave.

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Tue

06

Dec

2011

Music

Working on Music today. For The Secret Castle I've tried to stick to the cliches of fantasy, but not too close. Currently I'm creating basic structure of many of the songs but I'm hoping to come back and add signature elements to them to give them there own style as well.

 

The trick I think will be adding an instrument that isn't usually associated with it and integrating it in a way that is still pleasing and makes sense. My current front runners are pipe organ, accordian, squeeze box, and possibly slide whistle.

 

Well, maybe not the slide whistle.

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Mon

05

Dec

2011

Polish!

We're getting a press preview ready for delivery so it's time to create a good vertical slice of the game. It's at this point where we create this huge list of little things that need to be done to make sure the experience is great.This is everything from a pause screen to the way the screen responds when you zoom or touch something.

 

The great thing is everyone has been working so hard it's taken time for me just to keep on top of everything. New art, features, files, etc. are coming pretty much every day in order to get everything ready for review.

 

Also, we've been really lucky to recieve numerous invitations to preview our game so that when this thing is ready in a couple of weeks there will be quite a few people reporting on it. We are really excited to see what people really think of our story, art, and most importantly this new type of game.

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Mon

14

Nov

2011

Interview on iFanzine

The guys at iFanzine were kind enough to give us our first preview and interview. It was really exciting to finally start talking more and more about how the game will work and what the new 3D system means for traditional hidden object games.

 

We're working pretty hard on getting a preview build ready for the press so people can actually test it out before launch and we can get user impressions and some hands on preview articles. In the mean time please take a look at the article here.

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Fri

11

Nov

2011

Pieces of a puzzle

The most amazing thing has happened. I've had random people sit down with the game and play it and the game actually works. Not in the sense that the art is good or programming is clean. I'm super lucky to have a great team that always delivers good stuff in that department. I'm saying people understood the game with very limited direction and could figure out how to play with full knowledge that they had never played anything quite like it before.

 

My main concern was that despite being similar to hidden picture games we were doing something pretty new and I wasn't sure if it would work. at all. The thing is you just never know if it will be intuitive and accessible, which is the absolute most important thing about a casual game you want everyone to play. And ultimately, we were building and building and building along without a ton of user feedback to confirm that the base game system is fun and easy to understand.

 

Fortunately, with the latest demo I was able to get a bunch of people with different experience levels in games to try it and most picked it up instantly. The trick now will to keep all the core puzzles in the story from getting too convoluted and keeping the hard stuff for the advanced mode.

 

In retrospect I still consider this a mistake and always reccomend testing new mechanics and systems with the target audience before moving forward them, especially if your target audience is "everyone". Fortunately I got lucky and people get it. Now just to finish the darn thing.

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Fri

21

Oct

2011

Designing Everything

One of the things I'm usually guilty of in a project is over designing. Just recently I wrote a document for the start screen, the start screen. The problem with this is that it start burden every aspect of the game with having some style or interaction to it and that not only adds to the production time but the expectations of the player. If the start screen is fun then game needs to be AMAZING.

 

I'm looking at it a bit differently though. We're making a different kind of game and I'm looking at the start screen as an indication of how the game will work. We will still have a simple tutorial but if the entire experience feels like one continued journey then I have met my goal.

 

 

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Sat

15

Oct

2011

Going to Beta!

Beta is considered "feature complete", which is an incredibly nebulous term in itself but basically means you can play a whole level and everything in the game works. The last build has most of the systems in place including story cutscenes, in game text, inventory, puzzles multi piece objects, sound, and more.

 

At this stage levels start getting built, features refined, and bugs fixed. It's pretty exciting because the game begins to come together really fast but crazy because we all start going back to things we left months ago.

 

What hopefully works is that during the production process  we continued to crank away at levels, story, and content in the hopes it would work in the final product and everything would just sort of drop in. So far so good but expect to see a bunch more in the coming months as we really start speeding towards launch.

 

Here's a panel from one of our cutscenes to celebrate!

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Sun

09

Oct

2011

The First Screenshot

We're getting much closer to publishing our video walkthrough which will cover the game and all the systems and puzzle in it. I'm really excited but I recently realized we haven't released a single screenshot of the what the game will we even look like. While we're keeping the demo level under wraps until the video so nothing is spoiled, here's a screenshot from our second level, which is coming along pretty nicely:

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Wed

05

Oct

2011

Testing multi piece objects

We are finally implementing our last major game system into the game, multi piece hidden objects. Because The Secret Castle is pseudo 3D we can hide objects in many more ways than you would find in a traditional hidden picture game. One way (and probably the most complicated) is to break the hidden object into parts and hide it among mutliple layers of depth in the room. On top of that, many of these multi piece objects need to be manipulated in the 3D space to make them connectable. Below is a video showing one of the puzzles in the game.

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Sun

25

Sep

2011

Creating the characters

Early on in the project before development got underway we began to concept the characters and style of the game. We wanted to create a style that was familiar but also memorable. I knew that the game would essentially follow two characters so I wanted to focus on their design. Here are some tests on how they could possibly look:

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Wed

21

Sep

2011

What's going on in this game?

Throughout the development of The Secret Castle one thing that has been difficult has been giving a name to what the game does to give it that "3D" effect. See, I even put quotes around 3D because all games with polygons are 3D right? I've seen some people call the effect holographic, which of course I love because it sounds exciting.

 

 I think learning about the effect is kinda cool because like many cool things, it's been around in the underground of games, the tech demo scene, for a long time. One of the earliest demos using off the shelf equipment was done by Johnny Lee, and was done using the Wii, tracking his head movement rather than the position of a tablet or phone.

 

 

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Mon

19

Sep

2011

Hello Internet!

Howdy everyone! I'm John Francis and chances are if you are reading this then you already know me or perhaps are related to me directly. Either way, I'm really excited that this site is finally live and I can start talking about what I've been working on for quite some time now!

 

The Secret Castle is a hidden picture/puzzle game, but it's a good bit different than what you might think. The easiest way is to see it so please take a look at our istory trailer here:

 

 

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