Pisces: A Story of How My Team Rescued Me

There were a lot of things different with how I built Song of Pisces compared to how I built Prologue. For starters, though there were customizations I’ve done with Prologue’s system, they were nothing compared to the customizations I have done for Song of Pisces. This project was such a massive lesson in itself for me; it felt like making a game for the first time.

First Steps

Pisces’ core story has been around for 10 years, written by me and my Ragnarok Online guildmates for the characters we built in that world. Creating a game with it was another matter entirely. For one thing, there was the issue of maturity. For another, there was the issue of differences in medium. Most important issue: this must become an original game in itself, with a story that is completely different from the world of Ragnarok Online. As an adult, a lot of the stuff I had written for my own characters a decade ago make me cringe now, and there were scenes you can easily write on paper that could not be translated just as easily in-game. Needless to say, before I embarked on the project, I knew that there was going to be a lot of re-writing involved. So I decided to start by re-creating my own characters first and sending them out to my favorite illustrator, Clarice “Sao” Menguito.

Concept Art for Lady Haruka the Templar, Pai the Monk, Cat’s Eye the Mercenary

This was practically the first time I realized that Sao is my muse. It was August 2014. I wasn’t supposed to start development until January or February 2015 —   around the same months I began working on Prologue the year before — but the moment I saw her bring my characters to life, my brain exploded into a frenzy of activities. I began playing with the mechanics: I specifically wanted to do something that was inspired by Ragnarok Online’s gameplay but not quite the same. I had other inspirations, Wild Arms being one of them, and some things I got from tabletop roleplaying. The game had to have its own identity, after all.

As I couldn’t code everything on my own, I ended up buying snippets of scripts from a few people that came from at least five different countries. My brain exploded yet again, but it was more because I had begun using Google Translate to fix conflicts between, say, a script written by someone from an Asian country and someone from a Spanish-speaking one. Programming languages are universal, but documentation needs Google Translate.

Creating the World

This was actually my favorite part. Once Sao was done with the final version of each character, I went to work creating the spritesheets, basically the animated pixel art version of that. This was a learning experience for me, definitely, as I have never done pixel art. Sao’s illustrations are very detailed, and you’ll notice some really nice patterns on the fabric if you look closely. Unfortunately, my pixel art powers were limited and I couldn’t translate all of those intricate details into a miniature walking version. I also learned later that I didn’t have to. You just have to accept the fact that you cannot put everything on pixel art or you’ll lose the form you were aiming for.

Creating the spritesheets for Cat’s Eye and Mai the Troubadour.

Much as I enjoyed spritesheet creation, building the world also meant I’d have to: create actors, classes, skills, weapons, armors, items, status effects, and monsters. The bestiary was one of the most difficult things to do and mostly because the thought of creating monster spritesheets on my own nearly made me want to faint. It was tough enough to balance world creation. After creating a few humanoid monsters, I realized that I didn’t have enough brain cells left to do the non-humanoid ones. I originally commissioned Cherish “Ishy” Socro to do the non-humanoid monsters but as she still had school, she could only make four (plus the latest Senshi.Labs logo, which she did of her own volition).

It was during this point that Asia Pacific College repeatedly contacted me, asking me to take a look at their roster of interns who haven’t been deployed yet. There was just a bit of a problem: I get a little territorial about personal projects. I didn’t want to work with unknown entities, so I unearthed an old Senshi skills exam and revamped it to test for the kind of personality I could work with. I was not looking for someone who was ultra talented. No, I was looking for someone with grit, resourcefulness, and eagerness to learn (traits all of my thesis advisees possess). From those who had sent me their resumes, only Eunice Gatdula passed this test, despite never having experience with pixel art. I let her have the freedom of creating whatever, and I said I’d design the monsters around her art. The results were quirky and weird, and I liked them.

Some of Eunice's monster creations.
Some of Eunice’s monster creations.

Creating the Music

There was no question in my mind who I’d like to work with when it came to music. Kane Aoki and Thorton Salvador of Dualist were my opening and ending theme composers for Prologue and I wanted to challenge them with Song of Pisces. The moment Sao started working on the illustrations, I contacted Kane and told him about the project. This time around, I wanted a full-blown soundtrack. It turns out that Thorton liked the concept and gameplay so it was easy for them to create the music for it. The challenge was: how to bring out the nostalgia factor that old Korean MMORPGs stir in us while giving the world an old-school Japanese RPG feel.

Kane and Thorton were very thorough. Though I had worked with Kane when I was a producer in Anino Games, it was only in this project that I learned the value of sending gameplay footages while working remotely. Like for instance, I asked for flashback music and gave a reference. Without context, the reference could easily be mistaken for something happy, so Thorton sent me romantic piano background music (BGM).

My reaction was, “Oh. Um, somebody actually [insert tragedy here.] ” I sent him the gameplay footage and he laughed and said, “Wow, I didn’t realize that that was a powerfully disturbing scene!” Hours later, he sent the revised version.

Every time I sent in gameplay footages, Kane and Thorton would revise because they’d feel something was off. Sometimes, I’d already be satisfied with how a particular BGM sounded but they would still revise and add little things that I only would notice when they’re already incorporated into the game. Personally, I think the music is one of my favorite things in Pisces. Even now that the project has been submitted for release, I’d have the entire playlist on loop.

Exhaustion Sets In

I spent my entire Christmas break finishing the game and pushing it into alpha. I realized I needed 3 more maps just when I was wrapping things up, but I was so exhausted that I didn’t think I could do it anymore without burning out. It was during this time that Mathoria and Adarna (which I was then producing) were also gearing up for release and Adarna’s designer, Detroit Tañeca, suddenly messaged me to say that he was bored and, “Can you please give me something to do?” I happily obliged by asking him to make 3 dungeons for Pisces, catacombs to be exact, and with instructions to make sure that the player spends quite some time down there. (One of the main QA, Neil Alcuran, would incessantly complain about these later, haha.)

By January 2015, I was really at the point of burnout but I knew my level designs were unbalanced, my story a confusing mess, some of my monsters were overpowered and so on and so forth. Except for the monster art, character illustrations, and music, I basically had embarked on an almost one-woman RPG project and it took its toll on my health and my teaching vocation. The baby game designer-programmer in me was just about ready to give up, but the senior producer in me yelled, “You’re so close to the end. Finish it!”

QA versus Programmer Problems
My theme song.

Amazingly enough, just when the completed game project entered alpha, all my thesis advisees (all of them Philippine Game Festival winners) suddenly wanted to do internship with me. Erin Yap asked if she could do quality assurance for Senshi. She became my lead QA and was heavily responsible for both causing and curing my headaches. (Yes, she was that good at breaking me/the game.) I had the main QA team — Erin, Sheryl Lim, Neil, and Francisco Bate — train under Prologue’s Lead QA Tricia Monsod (who also happens to be Lead QA for Anino Playlab). Later, the QA team would be supported by the Beta Testers. All of these people made sure that the story and design make sense to most testers, not just in my head. We poke fun at the game (I cannot write serious stuff) but it’s all for a good laugh.

Sometimes, other members of the team would help me out with little things. Like when Erin proclaimed that my villain portraits were ugly — not knowing that I drew them — and forced Sheryl to re-make them. Yoyi Halago and Detroit helped me out with the spritesheet animation for Yozora’s hammer. Eunice, though she never told me she was done with internship (it was APC who informed me two months later), drew the cut scenes.

Funny conversations with the team.
Funny conversations with the team.

Having a team arrive after Alpha actually rescued me from the brink of insanity. We reached Beta after two months of testing and constant meetings, and then Gold a month later. Though yes, it drove me crazy how Erin and Sheryl would find the weirdest bugs, they helped me glue together many of the broken pieces in my design. A game would never be perfect upon release but what Pisces looks like now is a million miles away from what it was during alpha.

Thank you, Team Senshi. I’d be a heartbroken mess without you. Book 1: Song of Pisces is now scheduled for release on May 16, 2015 at Desura.

The Senshi Family (Mathoria and Adarna team missing).
The Senshi Family (Mathoria and Adarna teams missing).


Trivia I learned recently:

The QA Leads for two War Guardian Chronicle titles (Tricia Monsod for Prologue and Erin Yap for Song of Pisces) share the same birthday. ^_^

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