Aeon of Sands - The Trail - An exclusive dungeon crawling interview with Two Bits Kid


Ever since 2014 we've been keeping you up to date with Two Bits Kid in development dungeon crawler of Aeon of Sands ; an incredible looking crawler that takes us back to the golden age of grid based crawlers, full of disgusting creatures, loot, button pushing door openers and nasty fireballs that do more than just singe your hair. But now we've gone one step further, as after our successful interview with the creator of the Eye of the Beholder C64 port, we now have an exclusive interview with Two Bits Kid (Marco/Florian) for Aeon of Sands!

IRN :

How many levels does the Aeon of Sands - The Trail have?

We could answer that with a number, which is higher than 60, but that tells only a misleading (or partial) story. Aeon of Sands is not a game where you face one level after the other in a linear way.

You will see the desert landscape, obscure mazes, from small to large size, fast paced arenas, nested in about 20 sites spread across the world. During one play-through, you see between one third to half of them, based on the choices you take during the extensive choose-your-adventure part.

The reason for that is that we developed a much more bigger game than you can see in one playthrough. So you can play the game only once to create your unique storyline, or repeatedly to discover different sides to it.

We wanted to give the player the opportunity to make real choices and and we wanted these choices to create the explorable paths of the world for him; your story choices create the game areas: it opens some paths and closes some others.



IRN :

How long has the development taken so far?

Starting in 2012, about 2 years of research, planning, story and pipeline (how to get the exact old-school look and feel), followed by 3 years of implementation (code, graphics, gameplay, story, audio), and almost 1 year of beta-testing and polishing.

The development of Aeon in some numbers, (as of the moment of writing):

  • more than 300 hours of Skype calls;
  • 18,095 emails exchanged between the two developers;
  • more than 30 GB worth of production data files
  • a story of about 80,000 words;
  • more than 240 illustrations / artworks that go with them;
  • more than 60 mazes to explore;
  • almost 60 individual opponents, monsters and bosses, for a total 572 frames of animation;
  • more than 200 individual items with in-game description;
  • more than 270 individual sounds, for monsters, items, ambient and GUI;
  • more than a dozen ambient music tracks;
  • one developed custom dialogue/story scripting language
  • 2,800 coffees or 35 kg of coffee beans ;)

IRN :

Any idea of a release date?

Our plan is to release in 2018, we are still fiddling with pending legal stuff, hoping all goes ok.
We will disclose the release date in a few weeks on our blog; please do register for our newsletter if you want to be the first to know!

Link to subscription: https://t.co/ft6LromBC1

IRN :

How did you come up with the idea behind the game and more especially the name Aeon of Sands? 

Marco: The idea behind the game came by the attraction seldom used desert ambient's had on me, (since the Stone Prophet, I think) and by the appeal of a civilisation crashing - or crashed - for a story's setup, like in Perihelion, or in the Asimov’s Foundation cycle.

But mostly, it comes by pulp magazines of the fifties, the era of the nuclear scare that gave us comic books like Amazing Adventures, Strange Worlds, Tales of Suspense… A very important influence on the game was in particular the novel The Wind From Nowhere, by J. G. Ballard. As well as Camus' La Peste and The Stranger for some themes and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for the kind of humour.

Not that I’m up to even ironing any of those authors shirts, as a writer: luckily, AoS is still a game, not literature. We chose the name Aeon of Sands to mix the concept of time - the aeon being a huge amount of time - with desert, to give a sense of indefinite suspension.

Interesting fact, in Saramago's The Gospel According To Jesus Christ, the novel characters “go into the desert” often, meaning they move away from civilisation, from their settlements, to talk openly to each other. Another interesting fact, the poorly drawn logo of Aeon of Sands is a toppled hourglass: the time doesn’t flow anymore.



IRN:

What was your two most favourite dungeon crawlers of all time ? 

Marco: I give you 3: Perihelion, Ishar, Elvira mistress of the Dark
Florian: Might & Magic 4&5, Das Schwarze Auge - Die Schicksalsklinge, Dragon's Crown

IRN:

Can you give us a sneak look into the engine of the game is it an engine you've personally developed for Aeon? 

The engine of the game is basically the game. Florian developed it internally around several tools to build the game. A Maze Editor, a Particle Editor, a Tool for Dialogues and a Tool to analyse the whole game, because the game is huge and we are only two people. So for each build we export all data to Excel and do some balancing analysis here and there.

Florian: At the start of the development we had no detailed game design document, only a short novel from Marco and this vision and so I couldn’t create a fixed game engine for Aeon. We wanted/had to be flexible over the whole development time... from start to end.

If we had chosen an existing framework, we would have not developed the game that Aeon is today. We have so many exceptions in the game, that a streamlined engine couldn’t make it.

I  also developed a Bot, who plays the game for us :).

  • The Bot is our full time 24h play tester, and it plays very quickly, maybe 100 times faster than a real person. 
  • The Bot can play the game from start to end, but it plays the game very randomly, so it may take 10 hours to complete the game or 60 hours.
  • The Bot can only find some sort of bugs, not all. Also he cannot do complex puzzles… here one of us has to help him.
I wanted it to be very non-scripted - and random - just because a bug may appear only after you have done a thing 100 or 1,000 times. No real tester will ever do such a thing.



IRN:

What's been your best and worst experiences during development, any difficult challenges? 

Marco: My best experience has been creating the story illustrations; I was fascinated by how the Gold Box series seemed to mix different artists and and their particular styles in each game, so that you could see the differences and don’t mind them. I tried to do something similar mixing more realistic pieces with more raw ones, using the narrative to dictate the style. It was fun!

Also visiting Florian in Berlin was great! The game scene there is something that is non-existing close to my town.

Florian: My best experience was visiting Marco at Biella and the time we had over there.

The worst experience / challenge for us both has been the distance from Berlin/Germany to Biella/Italy and that we both have to speak in English as non-natives.

IRN:

What sort of creatures can we expect and which creature really stands out in design?

Roughly half of the opponents are humanoids of various tribes, then we have beasts, large (bosses) and small, and some strange hybrids. Each of them has one or more combat-skills, from melee to range and / or to magical abilities. The monster family we like the most are the Sandcrawlers. They are also connected to some part of the story, they are basically a theme in the game.



Michael Hoffmann :

If you had the budget of a Crawler of the 90s like Lands of Lore or Stonekeep, where would you have invested the additional money?

Marco: More team members.

The bottleneck of the whole development is that we're basically two guys; we had help with the music tracks, with the proofreading, and with a few spell animations; but everything else is made by the two of us.

Most of the big tasks of development happened at the same time, done by the same two guys: maze content assets, maze design and story, their implementation. Neither of us could work only on one task for even a single week.

Quite the opposite, the last three years, the normal has been for each of us to work on at least ten different issues every single day; they can stretch into a week or in months even, for large stuff, but it's all interconnected. And while it looks mad, it is unavoidable, and we still managed a tight ship, all considered.

Any additional promising idea that came during the process needed to be fit into the pipeline and the work hours of the two of us. A new idea means: we usually discuss it, we design it; if it requires assets, I create them, and Florian creates the code for it and implements it; then we test it: most of the time its adjustment requires several iterations.

If we had a sizeable budget, I would have liked one more writer, to add on the side-quest content; one more graphic artist (or two) to help me, an additional coder to help Florian test each new implementation, a project manager invested mostly in assessing gameplay quality, and a person dedicated to playing and stress testing the game and marketing.

Also a studio, because working long distance in something as complex as Aeon of Sands has been difficult. Finally, I would have given us a wage. Aeon of Sands is completely self-financed through our work and savings, and that too has been brutal.

Michael Hoffmann :

Are there story elements to explore in the game, like encounters with the Templars in Eye of the Beholder 2 or the Audience with the King in Lands of Lore? If yes, can you give an example on what to expect in Aeon of Sands?

How is the story advanced? By text only or do you have some pictures / cutscenes?

We have a video showcasing the Aeon of Sands Dialogue System:


The game has a rich story to explore; that happens in the dialogues’ cutscenes when you advance in the game. Your choices during these cutscenes influence mainly four things:
  • the mazes, which might be accessed, which might not, and what different handcrafted content they have;
  • the possible addition of new party members;
  • the overall personality of the main character, providing the basis for the end of the game, of which there are three;
  • the knowledge of the player about the answer to the question: what’s really going on?
Choices depend on each other; also earlier choices can influence the game much later than expected.

Then there are some random encounters, which might happen during travels.

There are no traditional side-quests: there is our protagonist, Setrani, a lowly clerk of the city of Pantella, and his wanderings in the desert, unwillingly chasing something hidden in the land, and chased by a lot of things and people who want usually to kill him, eat him, and sometimes, worse, use him.

We give you three examples of the above, without spoiling you anything:

You can stumble into a treasure hunt in the middle of the sands, provided you have the right item;
having a specific character in a specific situation and making it doing something odd in your place, opens up a chain of events with far reaching consequences; you might find that an very odd object that you acquired early on opens an unexpected optional path.

All of the dialogue cutscenes are accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations: there are about 80,000 words of dialogue, and more than 240 illustrations.


Exclusive new footage!

Michael Hoffmann :

Assuming there are some challenging battles in the game. What should the player consider in order to beat it? (e.g. correct weapons to exploit the type of armor, have spells ready etc.)

Florian: LUCK ;-)

Marco: The progress of the party in the game depends on the items you find and choose to take with you. Nearly all items have positive and negative values, too, that influence your characters’ state, so you have to choose wisely, because each item, beside the consumable ones (food, healing, reagents), occurs mostly only once per game. This means that it's less about having a powerful character and more about how you play it.

Luca Giudice:

Will it be, despite having outdoors, a pure first person crawler (Like Ishar) or will it have some 2D elements (Like Amberstar)?

Aeon of Sands has first person for exploration and combat, and it has top-down view when travelling on the world map. Plus of course the hundreds of illustrated dialogues.

Luca Giudice:

How advanced will RPG interaction elements with NPCs be?

Dialogues dynamically change depending on items owned, earlier choices and companions in the party. Companions might interact in further dialogues and open or close specific paths; during exploration and combat, however, you have full control over them.

Luca Giudice:

- Will the party be dynamic (Like EoB or Amberstar where you could recruit new members during the adventure) or will it be fixed (Like Dungeon Master)?

Dynamic: You start with the protagonist only, Setrani, and you might meet and add companions to the party, or choose not to; but you don’t ever go into a tavern and recruit them: they are embedded in the story. If a companion dies in the course of the adventure, it is lost forever (until the next new game), but you can continue to play and also finish the game. But it might be even harder. If you lose Setrani, the game ends.

Luca Giudice:

Suggested Hardware specs to run the game?

Minimum:
Intel® Core™ i3 or higher
Graphic card supporting OpenGL 2.1+/GLSL 1.40+, 1 GB VRAM
Windows 7+/newest Linux/updated MacOSX
4 GB RAM and 500 MB Harddisk

Rodion Pulsar:

Will we have to manage food and water, and if so, will being in the desert impact the need for water ?

We decided early on not to have hunger and thirst micro-management; you still have to manage the consumable resources you find, that can help you recover HP and Stamina and recover from mana saturation.

Rodion Pulsar:

Will this also impact items? (thinking about desert armors from Dune, recycling body's fluids)

Not like you describe, but to overcome certain environments you have to protect your characters with specific items.

Rodion Pulsar:

Is it a totally new universe in term of monsters, weapons, items, etc, or will we have "usual AD&D" corresponding names (long sword +1 etc) ?

It is totally new!

The Aeon of Sands world is a post-civilisation one, very low on resources, it has an extreme climate, and even its magic is something dangerous that comes from an unbalanced nature: what Setrani scavenges during his travels is almost always a specific item for which he had to pay somehow with his own health; the least we can do for him is to compensate him with something specific each time.

We have written a complete backstory for the game world; if you want to read some insight on it, we have a short exposé at:

https://blog.aeonofsands.com/2015/07/the-desert-and-you.html

While race and class concepts are mostly hidden to the player, we have designed tribes and professions for humans, and designed our own beast and monster races.

The fact that we keep the workings hidden is by choice: we want the player to treat whatever Setrani encounters as something specific to the encounter, and new to him, pampered as he was in his secluded city of Pantella, with scant contact with the desert outside of its glass dome.

IRN:

Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, especially from the members is there anything else you wish us to know we haven't asked? 

We hope that people are as excited to play Aeon of Sands when it comes out as we are! Thanks to Indie Retro News for hosting this  and thanks to the community for submitting so many interesting questions!

And that wraps up the interview of this rather eye opening Dungeon Crawler, a game we have been excited to play for some time since its first announcement all those years ago. So make sure to check out the main Aeon website because if the interview was anything to go by, this crawler will have you coming back for more!  Links 1) Website 2) Twitter

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