LOOKING BACK: STARLESS UMBRA
A look back at some classic Rpg Maker games.
- 06/20/2012 09:20 AM
What is Looking Back? A series of articles talking about those classic Rpg Maker games from the past.
Created by: (DHM)dragonheartman.
Made With: Rpg Maker 2003
Interview with DHM:
The current version plays through the prologue, which is only about 10% of the game.
You play as Andoru and Clydan, two locals from a small island village that has unfortunately been raided by bandits. The two head off to infiltrate the bandits' hideout and rescue Andoru's sister, but things do not go as expected. In an encounter with the leader of the bandits, a radiant light emanates from the island and sends Clydan and Andoru elsewhere.
First off, tell us about yourself DHM?
Well well, my name is Andrew but I go by dhm on the internet and sometimes IRL too. I not-so recently got a BS in computer science and now I’m working as a QA Engineer. When I’m not at work, I’m either working on Starless Umbra, producing EDM, lifting weights, napping on public transit, or playing SNES games.
How did you come about Rpg Maker?
In 2002 I stumbled across havre-rpg, an old French RM2k website that (illegally) hosted Don’s translation of 2k. I was probably the only English speaker there, but I posted in English and I think that annoyed a lot of people. I then found GamingW, where I continued to annoy native English speakers, but learned how to use 2k.
I know Starless Umbra was originally known as Dragon Heart, tell us about how it came about?
In Elementary School I wrote a small adventure story called Andrew’s Adventure. It was really cheesy but it actually was the basis for the first few iterations of my project. After a few months of work, I submitted a project plagued with Final Fantasy references and RTP to GamingW. It was not well-received, and I even got my thirteen-year-old feelings hurt quite a bit. Thankfully I’ve learned a lot from those days though!
What has been the best aspect of continually working on your game after so many years, what keeps you going?
The best aspect is definitely the familiarity I have with everything about the project. I’m not a terribly good storyteller, so to be able to stick with a project and continually molding it to the best I can make it certainly feels rewarding. Game development doesn’t come easy to me, mostly because I have trouble planning and organizing everything, so that makes it challenging, but even more enjoyable.
There are a lot of things that keep me going. Certainly the rpg making community I feel has always been a huge part; my rpg-making contemporaries here have done some wildly inspirational things and I try to give back wherever possible. All the feedback I’ve received definitely helps me push forward and make every version better than the last.
In addition, having a background in computer science helped me out tremendously. Very quickly I learned how to do some fun things with the engine and really push it (and myself) to its limits. I really like doing things people traditionally find impossible or impractical to do with the engine just because I can. Starless Umbra is in every sense a canvas for me. I try to do a lot of different things: some more successful than others, but it’s all documented within the project. I know there’s more to an rpg than gimmicky minigames but gameplay comes first for me. I have an absurdly short attention span when it comes to games, so I have to keep it fun at least for myself.
I know I’m really pushing on the point, but another element that drives progress is the fact that game development still feels like a hobby for me. I spend my vacation days developing SU because I love doing it. I plan things out to a bare minimum and implement things I think would be fun or challenging.
Why the name change?
I’m sort of an internet creeper. By that I mean I really like to know where my game gets to on the internet. In order for that to happen, I feel a fairly unique game name goes a long way. For example, when I searched “Starless Umbra” back in 2008, google didn’t return a single hit. Now, a quick search returns over 17,000 results.
I was also able to nab starlessumbra.com, which developing is also an on-going work-in-progress, but has been a learning experience for me as a developer.
Beyond the uniqueness, the name change also in a deeper sense symbolizes my desire to create something more professional, to give my work its own brand if you will.
The meaning behind the name is actually explained in Chapter Eight, which was well-in-progress before I decided to step back and fix some of the issues I have with the game’s foundation.
Will you ever be satisfied with your intro?
If we were to plot my percent satisfaction of SU as a function of effort, you can imagine a vertical asymptote at x = 1. As x approaches 1, or 100% satisfaction, the level of effort, f(x), would approach infinity.
Silly graph jokes aside, my experience shows you’ll never be quite at 100% satisfaction with a project. Furthermore, I feel there comes a time when you just need to accept something less than your idea of perfection and move on towards completion. If I implemented every little thing I wanted to, I don’t think I’d be able to finish my project. This may sound hypocritical of me, after deciding to re-release the first few chapters this late in the development cycle.
If I really were to redo the game from scratch again, I’d do many things different. In fact, there are a few ideas that won’t make it into the final version of the game. Those will wait for my next project.
Tell us about Starless Umbra, in your own opinion so far?
SU is, as I mentioned earlier, a canvas for both my ideas and challenges as a developer as well as my dreams and ambitions of my childhood all in one little executable. Abstractions aside, I’m trying to create a game that feels like a traditional RPG with a strong emphasis on gameplay and a simpler storyline to tie everything together without overwhelming the player.
When people think about SU, the first thing they probably recall is the gameplay. Minigames, puzzles, and fun little systems are everywhere. As a developer, this is completely deliberate. My number one priority is to make the game engaging, fun, and rewarding.
The storyline is also intentionally simple. SU lacks many of the main plot devices you see in RPGs: the two warring nations, four-to-six ridiculously powerful crystals, evil kings, and so on. Granted, there are a few unavoidable cliches the game falls into, but my emphasis is definitely on the characters and their relationship to the world around them.
My goal in redoing the first few chapters is ultimately to unify the gameplay mechanics and storyline elements that were otherwise scattered about randomly in older iterations of the game. Characters won’t be gamebreakingly unique and the dialogue won’t turn publishers’ heads, but I will try to make everything cohesive with no glaring flaws across the board. Gameplay, however, always was--and always will be--top priority.
What inspires you?
The first source of inspiration, which is probably obvious, is the SNES-era RPGs. Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy, Secret of Mana, etc., have been a consistent source of inspiration for as long as I’ve been able to read a messagebox.
I’m also motivated by other contemporaries that continue to work with an push RM2k3: Vanit (FFVII2DR), lachsen (Velsarbor), Cherry (dozens of 2k3 patches), and Kazesui (“holy s** I’d never want to spend the time to do that in 2k3”). We’re few and far between, but it’s always nice to follow what these guys are up to.
I also touched on the larger rpg making community earlier, and the same words apply here. There are dozens of great games around here and it’s inspiring to see others with similar devotion continuing to push new releases.
Outside the realm of gaming, I’m inspired by bad weather (rain and snow in particular), difficult problems, close friends that put up with my recluse-lifestyle near release dates, folk metal, and advances in physics/astronomy.
What Rpg Maker games do you like?
Velsarbor, The Frozen World, Kindred Saga, and Legend of the Philosopher’s Stone inspire me from a technical perspective. I’ve actually spent a good amount of time playing through Velsarbor and maxing out my characters, despite knowing absolutely no German.
Then there are of course games like Forever’s End, Balmung Cycle, Ascendence, and Oathguard which I follow up with frequently that ooze professionalism. It’s a shame half of those I mentioned were canceled.
Lastly, there are a good number of games that show promise that I haven’t played, mostly because there isn’t a demo yet (I’m looking at you, Nightfall and Among Thieves!) or I haven’t had time to get to. I’m glad people are still using 2k3.
Any plans for once Starless Umbra is done?
I’d like to keep with SU. And by that I mean there’s a lot of work I want to do around the website and promoting the game that will continue well after the game is complete. It would be really awesome if all the game’s graphics were eventually royalty-free and not patched from various sources.
There’s also ambitious projects like RPG Maker 20xx and EasyRPG, which have shown that there’s a future in 2k3 beyond desktop PCs on aging operating systems. I’d really like to assist with these projects so we can see some 2k3 games seep into other operating systems, including mobile ones.
My next project will probably one way or another look and feel like a 2k3 game. I might write something with Java using the Android SDK or in C++ using OGRE--a wonderful graphics rendering engine. Whatever the platform, I do have plans for a prequel.
You wanna plug anything from the game?
Sure, just two things! One vague, one specific.
First, there are a lot of innovative things coming over the horizon. I’m not in ready to announce anything too big, but expect new things from SU in the next couple releases.
Secondly, a pixel artist, specifically for monsters and possibly tilesets in the future, would be tremendously helpful. I don’t have a formal description written up yet, but if you’re interested in creating some pixels for money, please let me know.
(This was the first game to truly wow me with it's custom systems)
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