As a quick fore-note, I’d like to mention that these dates are very much estimated. I never really thought the project would have as much interest as it’s seemingly gained, and thus never bothered to keep much of a record for its development until recently.
I have bolded the main points of this point for those of you that would like some basic information without reading this whole wall of text.
When I was younger, I decided that what I wanted to do with my life was make video games. They had done so much for me, and I wanted to make my own worlds and characters just like the ones I had loved so much.
Lost Hours started initially as an idea for a somewhat basic horror game called “Hell’s Hotel”. One area to explore, with gameplay and visuals akin to Silent Hill 2. It was an idea of mine I created for the sake of learning, as pretty much every game dev tutorial or class will tell you: make a basic game first for the sake of learning, getting something done, and then move on to sequentially better and more advanced works.
While I started out following this suggestion, over time I sort of went off the rails with it. I was young; I kept coming up with really cool story ideas I wanted to implement, and the couple of characters I had planned for the game kept getting more and more interesting. So a few years after I had started planning this game, I made the (naive) decision to instead attempt to create a full-fledged game.
I had this newer version layed out in my head as something visually akin to Alan Wake, but still with a lot of story and horror elements from Silent Hill or Resident Evil. I did have SOME level of understanding that I wasn’t going to be able to produce something so detailed though, especially with my art style. Instead, I had planned for the 3D character models to be somewhat cartoon-ish, with drawn on details similar to Borderlands but even more so (animated cartoon faces, similar to some JRPGs or Resident Evil: Code Veronica X). This, at the time, seemed like a decent middle-ground for me to attempt to achieve. At the very least, I’m slightly proud of myself for seeing that I wasn’t immediately going to be able to produce a AAA title like Alan Wake, at least visually, though I wish I had realized what I had planned was still FAR too complicated for my age, knowledge and abilities. I may have been an artist pretty much my whole life, but this just wasn’t gonna happen, at least not by myself (and at this time, around high school and just out of it, I had no one else to help me develop the actual game, only story editors. Spoiler alert: I never really get much help beyond story contributors and the occasional game dev peeps on Discord :P).
This “second version” of the game I titled “Dark Hours” and it had a fairly different plot and versions of characters than what they are now.
This design I worked with for probably a couple of years; basically the end of high school and on into college. It was all fine at this point (in my head): I was learning Unreal Engine at the time, having fun doing concept art and story writing, all the peripheral stuff and even some good artwork using Sculptris (sort of a free version of Z-Brush) which I have included here (a concept model for the first creature in the game, the zombie cats).
When it was time for me to choose a major in college, game development (or really anything related to it) was not an option (that is, my chosen college did not offer anything like that). The closest thing I could get was 3D animation, so that was what I went with. I had always been interested in animation anyway (2D more than 3D but the basic principles are the same) so it was fine.
Unfortunately after a few classes, I realized 3D animation really wasn’t my thing. Not that I wasn’t good at it or hated it, but I had much more fun in the past doing 2D, and while I enjoyed a lot of the 3D modeling process, more complex animations weren’t really things I enjoyed doing very much. On top of that epiphany was also another: that I was spending a lot of time doing other things, not just game dev.
While I had originally wanted to do game design/development as a career, as I was getting out of high school and going through college, I was realizing more and more that while I wanted to make games, I wanted to do it the way I wanted to do it. And that’s not how the game development industry works. Not to mention the market is completely flooded with those looking to get in, and it can be excessively hard to get any sort of position you’d actually be happy with, especially for someone like me who wants to do a number of different things for development, not just be stuck with one little job and work forever to get anywhere different.
Basically it wasn’t really my best option to pursue this as a career anymore, and I had more promising things in store at this point. I actually started focusing more on a career in practical effects rather than game dev, moving game dev to something more as a hobby since I didn’t want to give up on my project completely; I put so much time into it already and I still had the interest in development. However, this meant a lot less time dedicated to this project.
I actually ended up not working on this project for a good long time, or at least not very much at a time, probably a year or two, after I decided on this. I got REALLY close to actually throwing the thing away, not because I wanted to but because I felt like I’d never have the time to actually finish it. Unreal was pretty complicated, and I had no actual programming experience, only slight experience with UE’s Blueprints (visual scripting) stuff. And even with the “downgrades” I had made with the graphics, it was still a very complicated and daunting process. Unreal was very focused on graphics, and that alone was intimidating, especially since I had discovered that 3D animation wasn’t my favorite thing anyway.
I have never been one to think that graphics alone made a game good, as many of the horror games I grew up with (especially the original Silent Hill) didn’t have nice graphics at all. Even more interesting, they actually came up with some of their scariest elements due to the lack of graphics processing capabilities on the PlayStation system (the fog was there to mask the lack of draw-distance; it was originally in the design of the game!). I began thinking about this as a possible solution; what could I change with my own graphics to reduce my workload but still make it visually interesting and impactful?
Eventually that answer came to me. Since I wasn’t a fan of doing 3D work, what if I made it 2D? I could essentially reduce my workload on the graphics and do something I had always wanted to do: hand-drawn 2D animations. Yes this was still a lot of work, but it was work I was fully interested in pursuing, unlike most 3D work. As well there are often less discrepancies to deal with working with sprites that you deal with when working with 3D models; things like rigging, etc. This seemed like a great alteration for the game, and I ended up switching to Unity which is much more 2D friendly than Unreal. Within the Unity Asset Store, I even found an amazing little tool called SpriteMan3D, which enabled a 2D sprite to behave like a 3D model; moving around in a fully 3D world and even reacting properly to camera angle changes like rotation around a character. It was amazing (and the basic version was free!) and it gave me a ton of ideas on how to develop this new design around a cast of 2D characters and creatures existing in a 3D world, which is an under-utilized concept and not done all too often, especially for horror games. Despite my worry about the games possible reception (or lack-there-of) and my possible inability to even make it the way I wanted, I was excited about this, and worked with Unity and SpriteMan some to get a feel for what I could work with.
Then, some time in 2018 I discovered an asset for the Unity development engine called Game Creator, made by Catsoft Studios. It was pretty much brand new when I discovered it, it had very few modules available at the time, but regardless, it was advertised and appeared to be perfect for someone like me. In its most basic description, Game Creator was created to allow artists like me the ability to make games in Unity with little to no coding knowledge whatsoever. Rather it was a system based on logic and logic trees. I ended up discussing the ideas for my project with the creator Marti Nogue via Twitter and I was sure it would be able to help me construct the world and characters I had wanted to create for so many years. I knew that if I really wanted to make this project a reality, this was the best way to do it. Still, I was concerned about the cost of it all, as it was not a cheap proposition to purchase the needed assets to build something I wasn’t entirely sure about, especially knowing how much less time I had to work on it, and not even knowing if the game itself would be successful in any way, shape or form. I had shared the ideas with very few people, so I had very little input to go on. But I’m not the kind of artist who easily throws away ideas or characters, so I did end up taking steps later on and risking quite a bit of money to get this project up and running; more information on that will come in a later post.
As a wonderful gift, at the end of 2019 my mom decided to purchase Game Creator for me during a sale, as I was so concerned about the possibility the project would go nowhere and was hesitant to spend much. She had enough faith in it that she was willing to buy the base of what I needed to at least start developing the systems and see where it would go. I also bought myself the first two modules (dialogue and quests) to along with purchase, as they weren’t horrifically expensive to add on. I also knew that at least a little money had to spent on any project in order to start it up; that was a natural risk that would need to be taken with everything.
Still, despite my excitement for Unity and the GC suite, I left the project more or less dropped for a good while, due to my worry revolving around the project (anyone that knows me know how much I second guess myself and my work and worry myself into oblivion). I hadn’t done any real work for it for probably over a year at this point, until 2020 came along.
Sadly 2020 was a very tumultuous year, and for us it wasn’t just because of COVID-19. After not actually touching my game project for a year or two, I was about to delve right back into it, unknowingly, after being left with little else to work on.