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  • Nikolai Hilz

The birth of Two Pencils

Hey, do you think the beer here is free?


Those were the first words that Fabian ever said to me. As far as icebreakers go, I’d say it’s up there with the classics. A clear motivation, cleverly disguised as a question. I had, after many years of ignoring game developer networking events, finally decided to get off my arse and give them a go. The event, appropriately named Talk & Dev, took place in the eventspace of Werk1 Munich’s number one startup office space.


As I arrived, I found myself in an old industrial room that had been partially refurbished into something more “startupsy”. Exposed steel beams were fighting for attention with hipster lights, and colourful rubber chairs contrasted against naked white walls and dark concrete floor. (Two words meaning nudity in one sentence, SEO masterclass). Since I had come by myself, I naturally gravitated towards the fridge, and apparently, so did Fabian.


Image: https://www.werk1.com/eventlocation/eventspace/


We decided that there was only one way to find the answer to Fabian’s question. We took some beers and sat down at a free spot, ready to listen to the first speaker. During breaks, we got talking and noticed that we were both not just into games (duh!) but also storytelling (huh!).


I eagerly explained my worldbuilding technique from work and Fabian showed me some of the game prototypes and comic strips he’d created all on his own. One game in particular piqued my interest, a side-scrolling space shooter where the player takes control of a spaceship that looks like a leaf and blasts out acorns. It was exactly the kind of quirky, creative twist that I enjoyed.


We soon realised how much of a perfect match we were. I could write well enough to make a living off it, but I almost had to retake a whole year at school because my drawings were so abysmal (German school system...don’t even ask). Fabian is an artist, but let’s just say I’ve seen him spell his own name wrong on more than one occasion.


Non-artist's rendering of the scene


Fuelled by the consumption of alcohol, as well as the lack of oxygen that seems to haunt every Talk & Dev event, we passionately discussed anything from Star Wars to ancient Rome (coincidentally, both worlds can be quite sandy), before exchanging numbers and agreeing to meet up again.


And so we did. Since Europe’s culture is deeply rooted in alcoholism, we met up a few more times over beers, showing our work to each other and discussing games we love to play, our own storytelling methods, and everyday topics. It was basically like dating: You gauge whether you have enough similar interests and make sure that neither of you is secretly a xenophobic psychopath.


Or both of you are...


One day Fabian dropped the following question on Whatsapp: “Hey I’d like to work on a new game, do you want to create one together?”. It was the question I’d been waiting for all my life. We met up again, this time in my flat. Things were getting serious. We sat down and started the creation of our very own game.


That was probably the most difficult of all the sessions we ever had. We stared at a blank page and it stared right back at our clueless faces. Where do we start? Out of desperation, we came up with idiotic brainstorming concepts like writing down all of the game genres. That was the whole concept. It just ended in discussions whether mobas were their own genre, or whether it was worth writing down genres that we knew we would never work on.


Frustrated, I paced around the room and finally decided to just tell Fabian about an old idea of mine back at university. It was about spatial storytelling. Imagine a circular map layout with the player starting out in the centre. Three lines divided the outer areas into three rings, each representing an act of the story. You could venture out into any direction and would be presented with different versions of act 1.



The further outward you went, the further the story progressed, but always differently depending on where you travelled on the map. Every player, every playthrough would be a different story. Of course, there are some immediate issues with this idea, most prevalent the fact that the player could just stop going outward but rather into other directions, or the sheer amount of work that would never be seen by a player...and I had nothing to account for either.


That turned out better than I expected though, as Fabian immediately proceeded to tell me about a game prototype of his: The player starts the game in a small base, surrounded by unknown, dangerous territory. Since monsters come to attack at night, the player needs to collect resources, allowing him to upgrade his base defenses. Oh and Fabian wanted to tell a story.


You can see a lot of our core gameplay in Fabian’s mobile game Alone


Ding ding ding. It was like two cogs finally connecting, awakening a complex and powerful machine. Then Fabian asked me about the story that I had envisioned. Well...the story of course had also been brain-spawned during my time at university, and it was utterly moronic. But, encouraged by our heureka moment, I dropped all my worries and explained the whole plot to Fabian, putting season 8 of Game of Thrones to shame. Afterwards, Fabian just laughed. He thought I was joking. I pretended that I had indeed been joking, and we sat down immediately to write a new story together.


What emerged is probably the narrative I am the most proud of to this day. Once I told it to my wife, she stated in her typical frank...I mean loving nature that it was the first story of mine she ever liked. Thanks...and ouch. Incited by our combined concept and narrative, we started meeting regularly to flesh out the idea.


Most of you know these early creative sessions where the outcome is limited by nothing other than your imagination. It’s fantastic fun. This was especially true when we started worldbuilding. The feeling we wanted to convey was similar to western explorers telling their countrymen of Australia: Man-sized rabbits with pockets in their bellies for their children to chill in, beavers with duck beaks and some funky animal that looked like a bear and a mouse had done the unspeakable.


Seriously...who came up with that?


So we sat down and dreamed up deserts plagued by thunderstorms, where trees were made of rubber to avoid being hit by lightning, and lighting-charged fulgurites that could be carved into cool weapons. We thought of swamps with magnetic tar that would follow you and mimic your movements, or a living ground that would open and close its mouths to swallow its prey. Of course we brought up the idea of doing one of these sessions under the influence, but quickly discarded it when we noticed our ideas were weird enough already.


At some point, we had to get back to reality and proper game design. Open brainstorming was replaced by weeding out tons of ideas and focussing on our core game. It was around this time that Lena from Games Bavaria, back then working for FFF Bayern, held a talk at another Talk+Dev event. We had heard about the Bavarian games funding, but her talk cemented the idea that this was the right move for us.


We started paper prototyping. Our first play session performed deliciously. The core loop was smooth and elegant, decisions were tough but fun, and a proper dramatic arc unfolded, with nerve-wrackinly close battles at the end of the first ingame day. It felt exhilarating. How did we nail it on the first go? We had no idea. Every version we tried after that never came close. Nonetheless, we were convinced that we were onto something.


For some reason, Robb never liked going into red territories


The concept grant by FFF Bayern is in a bit of a funny position. It’s supposed to fund the creation of a game concept, but then what do you hand in to apply for it? A thought? A pinky promise that your idea is going to be cool? A blood oath to the old demons of Bavaria, swearing that you will create this concept...even in death? FFF Bayern had a better idea. They let you hand in a light concept 1.0, and if the jury is convinced by the potential, you are awarded a grant to develop a “proper” concept 2.0. Fair enough.


One problem that remained was a bit of intransparency in regards to how much was really expected from a concept 1.0. There are no examples to look at. And that led to our second problem, human nature. Since this is a competition in a way, we were totally overcompensating, worried we might hand in too little.


Of course, the feedback sessions with our advisor back then helped us a lot, but in the end we still overshot the target. The suggested page limit was 15 pages. We separated our 5 page story from the main document and went hardcore with text size and spacing to bring the main concept down to just under 20 pages.


Photograph taken just before we handed in our light concept 1.0


Naturally, this was all done the same way everything gets done. We met the morning before the deadline with a comfortable whole day to finish it off. Apart from devices not working, Fabian getting nosebleed three times and my super pregnant wife suddenly back home early, because she almost collapsed at work from the July heat, we comfortably crunched through the whole thing and finished 5 minutes before midnight.


Then we waited. It was clear to us that this wasn’t just the first big milestone, it was the first outside examination of our idea. A sign whether we were indeed onto something. If we wouldn’t get the grant, the game would probably stay at the concept stage for a long time, maybe forever. If we did get the grant...who knows what we could achieve next?


...


Did we get the grant? Did we not? Is this blog even real? All will be revealed with our next blog post.


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