BlizzCrafts: Talking SC2VN with Timothy Young and TJ Huckabee
When we first heard about SC2VN, the fan-made visual novel game, we weren’t quite sure what to think. This particular approach and game style isn’t anything that Blizzard has toyed with before, so it was pretty cool to see fans take up the task and produce a really sharp title. In SC2VN, you play a gamer who is new to the StarCraft 2 competitive scene in South Korea, and are tasked with pulling together the best team you can from the gamers you meet along the way. It’s a very different and very impressive kind of fan project, and we got the opportunity to sit down with two of the creators, Timothy Young and TJ Huckabee, to talk about this unique game, and how it came to life.
Why make a visual novel about the professional StarCraft 2 scene? Why did you feel like this was a story that needed to be told?
TJ: There are lots of eSports stories out there. Some do a great job of resonating with their respective communities (like the Smash documentary!) while others exist only to sell an idea of what eSports is to fans or investors (aka something like this). SC2VN ultimately came out of the desire to tell a real story about the ways that this crazy new thing called eSports affects people. We play the story and setting straight, regardless of the fact that it’s in a medium that people typically associate with wacky hijinks like talking pigeons.
Tim: We wanted to address issues unique to eSports and how they might impact our characters. For example, the idea that in eSports, your ‘sport’ could have a sequel and that would greatly impact the competitive landscape. The stories of eSports are super relatable on a broader scale, but they manifest themselves in ways that are unique to the community. A lot of the plot points in SC2VN came about from thinking about issues we thought were interesting and unique to eSports. Things like working with sponsors, the “Korea vs. foreigner” dynamic, competition, and online identity were concepts we knew we wanted to explore.
Why talk about StarCraft, specifically, instead of any of the other competitive gaming scenes out there?
TJ: My own eSports experiences come largely from the StarCraft 2 community. I’ve played the game for more than five years and was relatively well ranked, and I followed Brood War for about a year before that. In fact, Tim and I first spoke after he sent me a message on the StarCraft subreddit. Other games like League, Dota, or Smash would likely make a great backdrop for a VN, but it wasn’t what suited our team at the time.
Tim: At the time we started the project, I had a better understanding of StarCraft than any other game and I had followed competitive Brood War for a while. In the past year I made a real effort to understand different eSports communities, and I still stand by the fact we chose StarCraft. The time period we set the game in was a really interesting point in eSports that no other game has experienced, and I think our knowledge of the scene added a good authenticity to the dialog and narrative.
On your website, you mention the project started as a joke about a StarCraft 2 dating simulator — how did this make the transition from joke to actual project?
TJ: It wasn’t pretty. We had no idea what we were doing when we started development on SC2VN, and the story suffered for it. A year into development the game really wasn’t working because we were still trying to cram the idea of telling a story about eSports into a shell of what we assumed a visual novel should look like. Pepper in some feature creep, and the project looked like it was destined for mediocrity or perpetual development. Some late nights spent rewriting and shaving down the scope helped us narrow down the parts of SC2VN that were actually working. We stopped letting preconceptions control our thinking and focused on making something that we actually wanted to make.
Tim: Originally I had a general idea to make an “eSports visual novel” with dating simulator tropes. About a month later I saw TJ’s video “What if SC2 was a dating simulator” and I thought his writing was hilarious, so I sent him a PM on reddit and proposed how to make it a real game. I built a silly prototype in class using his video as a guideline, and we moved on from there.
I think the moment we talked on Skype we agreed to move away from heavy dating simulator tropes because we saw a lot of potential in a more “serious” perspective. In our alpha demo we toned down the ‘dating simulator’ aspect and focused on developing real characters and stories. At the time, we based the characters of real pro-gamers (and sometimes gender-bended them). We moved away from that to create more original characters and found it really made the narrative work and gave the game a unique flavor and gave us more flexibility with the design. There’s a lot of jokes associated with visual novels but when you’re actually making one, those get left at the door when you realize what you can actually do.
Why use a game-format like this instead of a novel or comic?
TJ: I think the medium does a good job of targeting our core audience: people that play video games. It also helped us leverage our team’s strengths, as visual novels tend to rely heavily on writing. I wrote the whole thing for free (Tim also worked for free), which let us spend our budget to polish our art and music.
Tim: People have definitely made great documentaries, articles, and podcasts about eSports. But there hasn’t been a video game that told stories about eSports like a documentary or article has, so that became my big motivation for the project. We watched a few streamers who played the game in between sessions of StarCraft, or just all in one sitting. The game-format definitely helped us in getting the word out.
How large of a team put this together? Who did what?
TJ: I wrote, scripted, and directed the game. Tim handled production, formed a working relationship with Blizzard and Day, handled all of our website/social media stuff, and did all of the StarCraft scene screen capture. Four artists that split backgrounds, character lines, character color, GUI, and CG between them, and two musicians created original tracks for the game.
Tim: You can get a complete breakdown of the staff on the About page on our official website, we’re super grateful for everyone’s talents.
What’s your background in game development? Have you ever made something like this before?
TJ: I’ve done some tabletop game design and have been writing fiction for four years, but I can’t say I’ve ever developed anything close the scope of SC2VN before. Tim and I both learned an insane amount throughout the development process.
Tim: I’ve never made a game before but I knew how to code and put some software together. The game engine Ren’py made it really easy to develop prototypes, but it was a learning process to really get the polish in.
How long has it taken to go from the concept of the game to release?
TJ: More than two years if you count the time we spent making our hideous Kickstarter alpha, although we spent at least one of those years floundering. Tim gracefully calls that time “pre-production.”
What’s the biggest challenge been in bringing this game to life?
TJ: Working on something that looks like shit for months on end until one day it suddenly doesn’t. It’d have been easy for the team to lose motivation or believe that Tim and I had no idea what we were doing. We were incredibly lucky to recruit team members that could unite behind the game’s vision.
Tim: The StarCraft sequences were really painful to create — the pipeline involved the StarCraft 2 map editor, the StarCraft 2 client, Photoshop, and then animating the correct each screenshot for this process. Seeing a small error like a misplaced gateway meant the process had to be redone. It felt like stop motion animation.
TJ: I’m sorry for doing that to you, Tim.
How did you get Blizzard’s approval to use StarCraft art and music? It doesn’t seem like something they hand out often!
Tim: We only started this process when we thought it would be a cool idea to get the game on Steam. I was lucky enough to get a contact at Blizzard to email and we got a reply back a few weeks later. We did a phone call and numerous Skype convos to get them up to speed of our games content and where we were at in development, and we did our best to be transparent on what we were trying to accomplish. I heard the folks on the StarCraft team really took a liking to the project and made magic happen, and at PAX I got the amazing phone call that we were granted approval.
Not sure if that answers your question because it’s still a bit of a mystery to me! What I can say that everyone I talked to at Blizzard really took the time to understand what we were doing, and that they really love their community. We can’t thank the StarCraft team enough for taking interest in our game.
TJ: The trust that Blizzard put into us shows that they really care about their communities.
What are you working on next?
TJ: Oh god. I have no idea. Making games is hard. Maybe I’ll go back to roleplaying my Draenei?
Seriously though, neither Tim or I are done making games. We’re carefully considering the opportunities available to us, and will announce our intentions when the time is right. I really hope that this isn’t the last visual novel I make. I want to see the medium treated seriously rather than stock for lame ‘notice me senpai’ jokes and fanservice.
Tim: For now we’re focusing on getting SC2VN on Steam (vote for us on Greenlight) and releasing some more ‘behind the scenes’ content behind the game. We’ll also have an in-depth writeup about our development process and design goals. Like TJ said, the next game is honestly unknown but I hope people will support us in our next steps.
As of yesterday, SC2VN has been officially Greenlit on Steam — congratulations guys, and thank you for taking the time to chat with us!
That’s all for BlizzCrafts today — but check back next week for another selection of cool Blizzard-themed crafts! Have Blizzard arts and crafts of your own you’d like to see on Blizzard Watch? Send them our way– submissions and suggestions should be sent to liz at blizzardwatch dot com.
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