Conquests of the Longbow: Legend of Robin Hood

Making of

(by Christy Marx, from the Conquests of the Longbow hint book)

When the idea of doing a Robin Hood game was suggested to me, I was delighted. Robin Hood has always been one of my favorite heroes, not to mention how much I love the medieval time period in general. Just about any ancient time period, in fact. I'm fascinated with the details of how people lived their lives, how they though and reacted, what they ate and wore, and so on. I'm fascinated by ruins, by ancient writing and tantalizing hints of lost knowledge. So here was another chance to mix legend and history. Robin Hood himself is pure legend, but the setting of the twelfth century England allowed me to explore and use history.

I began my preparation for designing the game by reading different versions of the Robin Hood stories. Then I obtained some excellent books which provided the original ancient ballads and lots of scholarly research into the outlaw legends. I read and researched many aspects of the time period, including reading fanciful ballads written about King Richard, which featured an amazing mishmash of historical battles and wildly improbable adventures. I contacted the historical library of Nothingham and obtained all sorts of wonderful information about the town which included maps, drawings of the castle, descriptions of their fairs and market products, and all those obscure, but useful bits of background information that become so vital to the richness of a game.

Reading and absorbing all of this took a couple of months. Then I began to formulate the direction I should take. I wanted one large goal for the game, with lots of secondary goals and subplots. I decided to use historical fact as my jumping off point and selected the capture of King Richard in 1192 as he was attempting to return from the Third Crusade. He was traveling through Europe in disguise when he was betrayed and taken prisoner by King Leopold of Austria. The ransom demanded varies from source to source as being either 100,000 or 150,000 marks. He was released early in 1194 after a great deal of intrigue by Prince John and others failed to prevent it.

This provided me with an excellent backbone for a story: to raise ransom and save the King. I began to work out which characters to use and what their relationships would be. One of my early decisions was to skip all the various stories about how Robin met his men. Those stories have been told in plenty of movies and other forms and didn't contribute much to game play. Marian was another character to whom I gave a lot of thought. I knew I had to give her some new and different twist. slowly, an entire plot line took shape. I grabbed elements directly from the old Robin Hood ballads, added historical tidbits, threw in bits and pieces from the King Richard ballads, and incorporated a lot of my research into the Druids.

Why the Druids? Because one of the biggest characters in the Robin Hood legends is one that is most often ignored - the forest itself. The forest was the only thing that made the existence of a medieval outlaw possible. An outlaw was literally that - a man outside the law. No law-abiding citizen was allowed to help an outlaw in any way. No town or village or dwelling was supposed to admit him. There was nothing left except the forest. The Druids worshiped many trees and had lots of forest lore that fit beautifully with my desire to make Sherwood Forest something more than a mere backdrop. And also gave me the special twist I wanted for Marian.

Next, I wrote a game outline which told the whole plot of the game, rather like a short story, and mentioned each puzzle, riddle or type of problem that had to be solved along the way. This ran to sixteen single-spaced typed pages.

The art director went to work turning the outline into a storyboard. Storyboarding is a process commonly used in movies and always in animation. In movies and animation, the script is broken down into single-panel drawings of all the actions in each scene with the lines of dialogue pasted underneath. Our storyboard consisted of hundreds of single-panel illustrations, one for each screenshot that would appear in the game. When they were laid out so that they showed every step in the entire game outline, they covered two boards that were forty-seven inches by ninety-four inches each! Our producer and other people looked it over, we discussed various aspects and made changes as needed. By having the game laid out visually step by step, we could look for problems in how the player would get from one place to another, or how the overall game design would flow from one event to another.

I then wrote descriptions for all the characters in the game, covering everything from their personal traits to what kind of clothes they should wear. The artists did character sketches which were approved or revised.

Another major part of the game design was to decide upon and then write descriptions of each picture that had to be painted for a background. I needed to determine the setting for each piece of action and describe what we needed to see in each one. To help the artists as much as I could, I brought in whatever reference material I could find: costume books with medieval clothing, hats, boot, etc.; what the earliest form of spinning wheel looked like; what the coin of that time looked like; the maps of ancient Nothingham, and so on.

With storyboards, character designs and picture sketches approved, the art team was divided into background artists and animation artists. The background artists drew the pictures. Then the drawing was either painted by one of our artists, or was sent to an animation studio overseas to be painted and then usually touched-up once it came back. By the way, this is a very common practice now in the animation business, though you may not realize it. Virtually every studio that produces animation today (nearly all the Saturday morning cartoons and the syndicated cartoon series), with one or two rare exceptions, has its artwork produced at various animation studios overseas in such places in Japan, France, Ireland and Australia.

At the same time as the pictures were being painted, the animation team selected people to act out the roles of our characters so that they could be videotaped. when it came to getting Robin right, especially using the bow, I found a genuine longbow archer from Fresno who brought up his own longbow. We taped him firing the bow from all the angles, then taped him walking and jogging on a treadmill with bow in hand, and various other actions. For the love scene between Robin and Marian, however, we opted for a pair of real-life lovers and used one of our own programmers and his fiancee. A merry time was had by all. She also performed all of the other actions for Marian, such as the dance which I choreographed on the spot. The videotapes of the actors were digitized and the artists turned them into the finished animations that you see on your computer screen, complete with costumes.

during the production of the artwork, which took many, many month, I was writing the actual documentation and text for the game. By documentation, I mean a detailed description for the programmers of every single action and variable possibility that could occur in the game. the text is whatever you see on the screen (or, in CD, what you hear): every response that comes up when you click an icon, all of the dialogue between characters, riddles, etc.I have on my desk three 3-inch binders and two 2-inch binders that are packed full of hundreds of pages of documentation. I figure I've generated easily enough material for five screenplays or one whole novel. At the time I write this, we have over 1,500 separate pieces of animation for te game and 81 pictures.

Once pieces of art and documentation reached completion, the programmers could start their work. They put in months of hard work writing the code that makes it all come together into a game.

Along with my writing, I was consulting with the composer to work out the music. He agreed with me that we should go for the sounds of the medieval instruments, like the psaltery and lute. Because of my background playing the Celtic harp, I have good books of folk tunes and I was able to bring in several traditional Robin Hood songs to serve as a basis of inspiration for some of our music. We had to determine how many pieces of theme music we'd need and for which characters, and also generate a list of every single sound effect that had to be done. We ended up with something on the order of over three-hundred sound effects.

As director of the game, I was equally involved in developing art for the box cover, writing the game book, and overseeing all aspects of the game. But a game isn't created by any one person. It's the result of a wondrous alchemy in which many creative people contribute. So to the producer, artists, programmers, composers, and QA (game testers), I owe a debt of thanks for helping turn my design into a finished product and improving it along the way.

I hope you've enjoyed this tour through the birth and development of a game.

Christy Marx