Friday, 29 November 2013

Joe Dever's Lone Wolf - Interview

Back in the early 80s, personal computing was still in its infancy, games were amazing for the time, yet primitive by today's standards and couldn't hope to match what we could imagine in our own heads. Perhaps because of this, a type of book became incredibly popular, one where you could choose how he story developed by making decisions for the protagonist as you read. Those decisions led you to read certain paragraphs and not others, making the story unfold differently, depending on those choices. Many series were created, but one of the most successful was based on the character of Lone Wolf, with its riveting ongoing narrative that linked all the books together, while the character developed and progressed throughout the saga. You played Lone Wolf, last of the Kai - warrior monks sworn to protect their homeland, Sommerlund, against the armies of the Dark Lords.

The Forge Reply team with Joe Dever.

That series has a special place in my heart and I remember playing those books avidly as a child. So it was very exciting to learn that Forge Reply had released a new chapter to the story, for iOS and Android devices: Joe Dever's Lone Wolf - Blood on the Snow.

I spoke to Samuele Perseo, producer and narrative designer, and Alessandro Mazzega, PR and marketing manager of Forge Reply about this endeavour, and I learned that they too were avid fans of the original series, which accounts for their own enthusiasm for what they created. They were looking for an opportunity to create something new, and as Alessandro explains, "When we discovered that the Lone Wolf IP was available, we decided to go for it. We approached Mr. Dever and made our proposals in terms of concepts and design. Together, we decided to go on with the “enhanced gamebook” format."

Delve into a new adventure...
"The success Joe Dever had with his gamebooks was massive", Alessandro continued, "the people who grew up with Lone Wolf are now adults who have not given up their passions. Some of them will be drawn to this kind of experience even though they are not so much into video games. And then there’s a whole new audience, young and adult alike, that can appreciate the quality of a rich RPG [role-playing game] -and maybe discover a new way to play it."

Fans of the original saga will be happy to learn that Joe Dever was intimately involved in the creation process of this latest instalment. "He is an important member of the team!", Alessandro confirms. "We have been cooperating with him since the concept phase, then we have also dealt with the pre-production process together: it was not a small task, since we have been working on a fresh and darker take on Lone Wolf’s Magnamund, that affects the protagonist, the enemies and the world itself."

Choose your abilities.
"Last but not least, there’s the story: Joe Dever is writing a brand-new adventure for this game, set between the third and the fourth episode of the original saga. This process is closely tied to our own work on the design, the production and the development, so that there’s always a rich exchange of input and feedback between the author and the studio."

This was a big project for Forge Reply. Game Director, Fabio Pagetti, started working on it in August 2012. The pre-production process started roughly one month later. The size of the team has varied during the development cycle, and roughly fifteen people have been working on the game for thirteen months.

"The hybrid nature of Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf is what makes it so engaging to play," Samuele continues, "but also so challenging to design, develop and balance. We have worked hard to establish a strong connection between the story, the player’s choices and the diversity of the gameplay. Every component needs to work on its own as well as together with other ones: we want the player to always feel inside the same world and the same adventure."

Choose your next destination on the map.
And what Forge Reply have achieved truly is beautiful. The concept behind the game is extremely faithful to the book series, so much so in fact that what you have in front of you is essentially a virtual book. The app works on any iOS device and takes advantage of either's screen size to deliver the best possible experience whether you’re on an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad.

After you've chosen your character's special abilities - which will determine the kind of options you'll be presented with as you delve into the story - you'll be spending a lot of your time reading, turning the pages of your book and making choices as the story unfolds. Strangely, you can only turn the page by dragging the lower right corner. Holding the iPad or iPhone in front of you, using the top right corner would feel more natural, but that option isn't available. It's lower right, or tapping on the edge to make the page turn automatically.

Sort your equipment out.
Just like with the original books, you'll sometimes be presented with full page black and white artwork, but here, the image slowly moves and comes alive as you watch it. This, coupled with the atmospheric music does wonders to set the scene and immerse you in the story.

The narrative is great and like any work of written fiction, manages to convey more emotion, context, depth and feeling than most graphics-only game can only hope to achieve. But despite this, Lone Wolf could run the risk of being a pretty boring adventure for modern audiences, who demand more than just reading and making choices from their entertainment.

So the developers have peppered the story with visual interactions. Some of them require you to tap or swipe the screen at timed intervals to achieve a particular goal, like climbing a wall, for instance; miscalculate too often, and you fail, affecting the outcome of the story. You also have lock-picking options to access locked doors or bolted chests, and the interface works extremely well as you carefully twist and turn the lock using a lock-pick and a blade.

Tips appear the first time you select a new option.
And then there's combat. Although the reading part of the story can be done while holding your device in either landscape or portrait, fighting must take place in landscape. It starts off with a very powerful image: you're presented with a black and white drawing that slowly turns to life and becomes full colour, and here Lone Wolf stands, ready to fight.

But battles aren't easy and the concept is surprisingly complex. Although it's a turn-based battle system, you have a set amount of time to make decisions. The faster you are, the more you’ll be able to do in a single round, like inflicting damage, calling for help or drinking potions to revitalise your skills and health. Your endurance also dictates how much you can do in a single round, but it's sometimes hard to understand why you appear to be missing a turn while unable to do anything. It's particularly upsetting to see your character take blow after blow without being able to defend himself, so make sure you keep a reserve of endurance so you can parry those attacks once your turn is over. The developers are aware of the complexities of the fighting system and are tweaking the difficulty levels for the next update.

Lone Wolf walks out of the page to fight.
The backdrops aren't varied enough and you find yourself too often in the same outdoor or indoor setting, but you don't really have much time to appreciate the scenery when you're fighting for your life!

You might die quite frequently at first as you find your feet and understand how precise the timing has to be, and how each weapon and Kai discipline (the equivalent of magic spells) works, but once you get the hang of it, the battles can become quite satisfying as you use various techniques to win the day, which is good because you have to fight with increasing regularity the deeper into the story you go, and as you'd expect, your opponents get stronger, and harder to kill.

Each death gives you an opportunity to try the battle again, choose easier opponents (at a cost of reduced rewards) should they prove to be too difficult, or elect to restart from a preciously saved position to see if a different option could lead you to avoid a particular enemy that's annoyingly hard to beat. Unlike the book series, there's no way of cheating; you have to win the battle in order to move on!

Fight your way out of this situation...
The role-playing aspect of the game is present with your skills improving at the end of each chapter. Those improvements are based on how you dealt with situations throughout that chapter: rush in and fight will lead to increased strength, be more cautious and it's your intelligence that'll be improved, for instance.

You also get to manage your equipment, restore your health through the use of potions or meals, and repair your armour and weapons with the help of a friendly merchant. This game can keep you busy.

The first act of the story comes with the app itself, and is divided into three chapters, but that's not the whole adventure. Three additional acts are being developed and will become available as separate in-app purchases with the second act planned for sometime in the first trimester of next year. A season pass is available now so you can purchase all three acts immediately £6.99 ($9.99). As to why this decision was made, Alessandro explained that "Lone Wolf’s saga was inherently episodic, so that it really seemed the best way for us to handle a premium game and market it in multiple, subsequent releases. This game is made up of four acts and each one will carry over the player’s decisions and accomplishments, so that the story can feel really personal and rich."

To the victor go the spoils.
Of course it will also mean that playing this game to the end will make it more expensive than its original asking price of £2.99 ($4.99). But you get an exciting story of mystery, survival and desolation for this original investment, and since you can save three separate games, there are obvious replay opportunities as you choose different skills and make different decisions to see how this affects the story.

As yet, there are no iCloud save features, meaning that you can't start a game on an iPad and carry on with an iPhone. Lone Wolf's progress is locked to a specific device. However, Samuele assured me that "this feature is on our roadmap, however we can’t be too specific about it. Cloud mechanics greatly widen the possibilities of modern game development, but we want to make sure that we approach these tools in the proper way."

Lock picking, all in a day's work for a Kai Lord
Fans of the original series will undoubtably love how this story brings one of their favourite characters to life, but don't expect this to be a sign that the original books will get a similar digital treatment. As Samuele explains, "we are working with Joe Dever on new stories mainly because this “enhanced gamebook” experience includes new features and contents that would not fit with the original adventures, that were conceived and written with a different player experience in mind."

For now at least, the project will consist of those four acts. Each will introduce new creatures, new environments and contents. The first act feels a little short though; and you can expect to finish it in about six to eight hours, depending on your reading speed, the choices you make and how good you are at combat. Any future Lone Wolf adventures will depend on how successful this game is. If enough people like immersing themselves into a great story, and don't mind learning the intricacies of quite an original fighting system, then further adventures may make they're way into the App Store. But for now, you have to make sure Lone Wolf fights his way through the hordes of Giaks that have overrun the mining village of Rockstarn, help him discover if anyone survived the massacre, and see if there are any clues as to the reason for this unexpected attack.

For Sommerlund and the Kai!

This battle isn't going to be easy...


Version Reviewed: 1.0.1

Price: £2.99 ($4.99) (in-app purchases required to acquire additional acts)

Size: 535MB

Rated: 9+ for the following: Frequent/Intense Cartoon or Fantasy Violence

Compatibility: Requires iOS 4.3 or later. Compatible with iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. This app is optimized for iPhone 5.

Tested on: iPhone 4S and iPad 3rd generation, both on iOS 7.0.4.

Direct Link:

Project Aon (free online resource which also includes official downloadable copies of dozens of Lone Wolf books)

Time to rewrite history... 
Will you manage to fight your way to safety?

Full-page animated illustrations abound

Each choice changes how the story will unfold
Three against one. Hardly fair - for them

1 comment:

  1. As a huge fan of the series, I look forward to (eventually) experiencing this game. Your review was a good vicarious experience for those of us who can't do so at this time.