Post-mortem: Two Kingdoms

Jan
08

Post-mortem: Two Kingdoms

Two Kingdom is a Flash RPG/Action game (including animated cut scenes) I started in 2001, and finished in 2003. It was my first game, and the task was quite daunting, as RPGs usually imply a large world, lots of items, a strong storyline, enemies to beat up, tons and tons of lines of code, etc.

The game, and subsequent domain name have been down for a few years, as I was preparing to replace it with the newer, prettier and overall better Two Kingdoms Heroes (another story), so I decided to resurrect it for the purpose of this article 🙂 (link to play at the end of the write-up).

The Story

Two Kingdoms’ story tells the tale of a young knight that comes back home, covered with glory, only to find that his castle has been razed by an unexpected horde of invaders. After listening to the last words of his dying father, Lothar decides to race the enemy to the capital to warn the king of the impending attack that will most likely take place.

Lothar is returning home, only to discover his castle and family ravaged by war

Lothar's castle and family have been ravaged by war

The set-up of the world in Two Kingdoms can explain the urgency of Lothar’s mission: the Kingdom he lives in is split in two: The North, rich, industrialized (well, as far as it can go in a medieval/fantasy setting) and heavily militarized, and the South, being the bread-basket of the kingdom, to the hands of feudal lords, populated with small villages, big forests, and with very little military presence. In between the two sections, a huge mountain barrier (inhabited by Dwarfs – in the mines of Moytura) and a monumental bridge to the glory of past Heroes (Unoram) linking both half-continents.

Even the starting area features some dangerous foes for Lothar

Even the starting area features some dangerous foes for Lothar

The threat in the game, a gigantic armada, an hereditary enemy, decides to invade the world of Two Kingdoms, by the South, cutting the rest of the country of valuable food supply (and in the same time, searching the mines of Moytura for very precious, mysterious crystals – trying to stay spoiler free! :))

Most of the story is told in-game, either through dialogues, or through animated, cartoon-like cut scenes that pop at each crucial goal successfully reached by Lothar.

The Game

The game starts in a rural area, not far from Lothar’s devastated castle, that includes a few friendly faces that will give Lothar his first quests and items to equip (and that act as a very light tutorial for the player, although much better could have been done by nowadays standards). Quickly, things amp up for the players as they catch up on the trail of the invading armada.

Players will visit various areas as they progress through the game, ranging from dense forests to swampy marches, and from quiet little villages to dark and scary mines.

The combat system is very, very straight-forward: press space and turn into the direction of the enemy to swing your sword. The combat system was originally designed to be more evolved but I hit my limits pretty early and decided to go with what I knew to code (even though I got help towards the end, it was too late to overhaul anything).

Very fast, players will encounter NPCs with quests, related or not to the main story arc

Very fast, players will encounter NPCs with quests, related or not to the main story arc

The rest of the game mechanics are as straight forward: player slays monsters, gain experience points, get better gear, slays bigger monsters, drinks potions when health is low, etc, no big revolution here.

Most of the appeal of the game for the players was, I think, the scale of the game. At this time, there were very few Flash RPGs, and very little with a world as big as Two Kingdoms was.

Two Kingdoms was also including an online save system: players would register, and every time they would cross a check-point, the game would automatically record their progress and position. They would be able to resume their game by logging in their account.

Another feature, rather unusual in RPGs was the Hi-score leader board. Two Kingdoms includes a timer that records the time spent in-game. Players that would have the best ratio Time spent/Xp gained (by slaying monsters or doing quests) would lead the board. This was put in to encourage replayability and motivate players to explore and get to know the world enough to “optimize” their next playthrough, and maybe take the head of the leader board. I actually witnessed some raging battles for the top positions while the game was live. Unfortunately, the version I’ve recently re-uploaded has none of these feature (save system and leader board) so you’ll have to beat the game the old-school way: in one playthrough – sorry!

The Art

OK, let’s get this straight first: Two Kingdoms is heavily inspired by Blizzard’s 1995 Hit, Warcraft II, the Tides of Darkness. And when I said “inspired”, I mean like a Parrot repeats some sentences it heard, or a monkey doing grins!

Its a now known fact, the Horde likes red cloth and skulls

It's a now known fact, the Horde likes red cloth and skulls

The whole idea for Two Kingdoms actually happened during a multiplayer session of Warcraft II, while I was frantically hiding my last peon from my winning enemy, exploring the surrounding forest further and further, forcing my competitor into a game of hide-and-seek to snatch his victory. I then thought “Wow, this lonely peon exploring the world could make a cool RPG, if only I could add some critters, some purpose, and a back story. (Mind you, that was way before World of Warcraft :))

the first iteration of Two Kingdoms

the first iteration of Two Kingdoms

The first iteration of Two Kingdoms was this idea…verbatim: It was called “Adventures in Azeroth” and was featuring completely ripped-off graphics from Warcraft II, illustrating a footman running through a maze like-forest (then castle, then desert) and battling various enemies while collecting gold. a glorified Pac Man of some sort.

Then, the game took a life of its own. As I was adding functionality after functionality, it became obvious that it would be safer, more rewarding to have it set up in my own rules, and my own universe, with my own graphics (and also a good learning experience for a wannabe game artist). After putting my hands on several tutorials on isometric worlds, I decided to go that route and to do the Art in that new perspective.

Two Kingdoms ambition was always to feature a big world. I’ve always loved the “exploration” side of various video games I played, so I wanted Two Kingdoms’s players to feel that they were discovering a big universe. I wanted them to feel lost at times. I wanted a lot of variation in the landscapes and locations, so that as soon as players would have seen too much of an area, it would switch to a completely different area.

The snowy mountains of Anskaven are one of the biggest environment in game

The snowy mountains of Anskaven are one of the biggest environment in game

That means lots and lots of tiles. Two Kingdoms uses more than 280 single tiles and more than 200 hundred various sprites. It might seems low by nowadays standard, but at the time, most of the Flash games were quick coffee-break games, and file size was really an issue.
The creation process was a bit chaotic: I was totally new to this, so had very little “vision” for the game. The biggest time spent on the creation of tiles was actually to draw them, bring them in the engine, fire up the engine and play it, then bring back the tiles in photoshop to correct what I didn’t like, or what looked “off”.
The tiles were all created in Photoshop, following the pixel-by-pixel procedure, ultimately throwing some shading on some tiles, but most of them stay “hardcore”, old-school pixel art.

While the tiles visuals departed more from Warcraft II, I stayed very close to my source of inspiration when it came to character design. A lot of the spritesheet followed closely Blizzard’s own spritesheets, with of course enough variation (at least, I hoped) to make it look new, and somewhat original, although heavily related 🙂
Not being a great character animator when it comes to spritesheets, it allowed me to save some time on this part of design, and avoid having to redo the same sheet over and over.

The time I saved on that process, I injected it into the cut scenes. Originally, the cut scenes were some sort of a cheat: I really wanted to tell a story, and using the quest system (a very, very rough one) was difficult and cumbersome. I also wanted players to have a special reward when “clearing out” one level, and the cut scenes where fitting completely in that plan.

Retrospectively, the cut scenes are maybe the elements where I spent the most time in the game, and they might be the least important element of the game 🙂 But they definitely contributed to the “Wow!” factor when the game first came out.

Carefree Elves about to be exterminated by the invading Horde

Carefree Elves about to be exterminated by the invading Horde

The cut scenes backgrounds where “painted” in photohop. Some where painted directly, while some others where “paintbrush treated” photo-montages I had made from various sources. The characters were drawn and animated directly in Flash. Performance for playing vector-heavy images on top of the game window quickly became an issue, so I had to cheat by rendering some still vectors into Gifs or PNGs to save a little bit of resource on what really needed to be animated.

The dark Mines of Moytura. Although no enemies are on these shots, the mines were one of the most combat intensive part of the game

The dark Mines of Moytura. Although no enemies are on these shots, the mines were one of the most combat intensive part of the game

Towards the end, I discovered that tools like Poser could save me a lot of time with character animation, so I decided to completely restart from scratch all the animations of the main character (the one that “had” to have the most charisma) departing from the puppet-style animation I was using for the rest, and redrawing everything frame by frame, based on animations generated by Poser (unfortunately, the cartoon shader wasn’t accurate enough to fit the style I had going on in the rest of the cut scenes).

Each cut scene took me between 7 to 14 day of full time work from conception to completion.

The release version of the game features 6 different cut scenes, all themed towards different environments the player is going through, and revealing important bits of the story.

The last important creative part in bringing Two Kingdoms to life was the website and satellite assets. The game was supported by a full-featured site, including forums, a leader board (Hall of fame), a concept art dedicated section, an help section, a storyline section and of course, the game section.

Making websites was my job, so it went quite fast, especially since I reused a lot of assets and concepts created for the game. The website was a mix of HTML/DHTML and PHP/mySQL. It used very little Flash, aside the game itself, surprisingly so. I think at the time, I wanted the point of focus for the site to be the game, and not the goodies around it.

Reception

During the almost 2 years of development, Two Kingdoms got a very good support from the rest of the Flash community. Some refinements to the engine were handled by various, helpful coders, and I relied on a lot of existing tutorials for the gaps I had to fill in ( Tonypa’s isometric tutorials, and Klas Kroon map editor, that I used in a barely modified-to-fit-my-needs form).

Towards the end, a good Samaritan (Yann Geninasca) offered to rewrite a lot of the code, to ultimately get rid of the bugs, and give Two Kingdoms a rock solid Artificial Intelligence, using the A* algorithm instead of my simple quadrant system, for example.

Sail away, Flash game...

Sail away, little Flash game, sail away...

The game got released in December 2003. By that time, I had several playtest sessions that were satisfying, and although all the elements of the game weren’t necessarily where I wanted them to be, the game was ready for release, and I was ready to rest a little 🙂

Players were generally enthusiastic about the game, and Two Kingdoms quickly gained exposure. It was a moderate success, got a very reasonable amount of plays and very positive coverage in various indie game development sites and printed press magazines (I even had the surprise to find an article citing in example Two Kingdoms as a money-maker, while I never earned a dime on it because I didn’t want advertising anywhere close to the game :))
Two Kingdoms was elected 2nd best addictive game of 2003 by the Flash development board Flashkit.

The game got consistent plays during its online life, although fading towards the end, until I took it down in 2008, to prepare the coming of Two Kingdoms Heroes (that is still “in-progress” at this date, but that’s another story)

Post Mortem

Making Two Kingdoms was an adventure! It was coming from never having made a game before to working on an all time-consuming monster, but every bit was worth it. I learned a lot, learned how to streamline my creation process, how to tell an interactive story, what to change in my original ideas to please players, how to balance gameplay, etc.

It also taught me the rudiments of coding, although, the coding side was definitely the most painful part of the process. I wished I had successfully been able to interest a real coder, but the shear size of the project put off a lot of good souls.

This project allowed me to put my name on various boards as a committed, reliable designer, and led to other very interesting games, this time in association with talented coders.

At the time I started Two Kingdoms, I was a freelancer in New York (I just had left France, and had no green card yet to allow me to work in the US), so I had a little bit more time on my hands than if I had worked in-house for a company. I’m glad I used that time for Two Kingdoms; I doubt I will ever have that amount of time and energy for another project of this scope, particularly now that the gamers expectations, even for online, browser-based RPGs, have risen beyond the scope of what I could achieve alone.

I had to cut many features from the original plan (the whole magic combat system, complex AI for “evolved” enemies, more of the world, more quests, more NPCs, a companion system, etc. All these ideas are still in the air for the planned remake of Two Kingdoms, but now I know it’s not something I can achieve alone 🙂

More Information

The game can be played Here.

A lot of the articles on various websites have gone into oblivion, but GotoAndPlay still features a very top-line interview I gave few months after releasing the game. It can be read Here.

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