From Case Files to Sleuthhounds: Evolution of a Computer Game

February 6, 2015

The Sleuthhounds computer game demo status is still firmly rated at “coming soon.” I thought, while waiting, it might be interesting to delve into some of the history leading to the creation of this demo and ultimately the full game to follow.

Sleuthhounds is, or will be, a computer game set in the Cubes “storyverse” that spoofs the mystery genre in general and the venerable Sherlock Holmes in particular. Sleuthhounds will be a third person, point-n-click adventure game and mysteries have been a staple of such games for many years.

I first began work on Sleuthhounds way, way, waaaay back in December of 2008. Yes, you read that right. 2008. The demo being late by only a couple weeks doesn’t look so bad now, does it? ;-)

When I first started the game in 2008 it was significantly, drastically different from what it has become now. It was even named differently. Initially I called the game The Case Files of Pureluck Homes, which is a bit of a mouthful.

In the beginning, I thought the game would mostly focus on Pureluck Homes, a spoof of Sherlock Holmes, who I had written into my Cubes comics earlier in 2008. From my experience of writing the Cubes comics, I had learned it was good to have at least two characters in a piece as that allowed for the two to talk to each other and convey story in a more natural way (apparently I didn’t learn that lesson very well as the upcoming Sleuthhounds demo will only feature one character). So I knew I needed to give Homes a sidekick if only to give him someone to talk to. And of course Sherlock Holmes had his Doctor Watson.

It was at that point in the development of Case Files that I introduced the character of Jane Ampson. My thinking on the name went like this. Watson can be seen as the Son of Wat (one T). Watt (two Ts) is a measurement in electricity. Amp is also a measurement in electricity. Let’s make it Ampson. Dreadful reasoning, I know, but it amuses me. Anyway, Watson wrote about Holmes’s cases and so I thought Ampson could write about Homes’s cases. Once I was thinking “writer”, Jane Austen popped into my head. “Jane” seemed as generic a name as “John” and there was the lovely writer connection so…Jane Ampson.

Aside: For the record, I’d just like to point out that I had a female version of the Holmes sidekick by the end of 2008, wholly four years before the modern day television adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, Elementary, would introduce its female character Joan Watson.

As work continued on Case Files the role of Jane Ampson grew and grew. I came to realize that she was a good foil to the somewhat pompous Pureluck Homes and that she got most of the funniest lines to say. Ampson had gone from being a mere sidekick to an equal (in some ways, more than equal) partner of Homes.

With the increased importance of Ampson, that mouthful title of The Case Files of Pureluck Homes seemed less applicable. I didn’t have a good alternative title at that time, so I let the problem bubble away in the back of my subconscious for a while.

Meanwhile, work continued sporadically on the development of Case Files. A home move, various renovations, other Cubes projects, and various other factors would cause development on Case Files to go into periods of little or no progress.

Case Files started off as a very different game in concept from what Sleuthhounds has become. A couple years prior to starting Case Files I released my first freeware game, Quack V. It was a first person shooter, about as far removed from an adventure game as you could get, but it helped me develop my own framework for programming computer games. It covered all the basics of rendering graphics, handling input, playing audio, managing game states, etc. It also included its own simple assembly-esque scripting language for handling the game menus.

From developing Quack V, I could see that the scripting language had a lot of possibilities for speeding the development of games. I undertook Case Files mostly to evolve the low level assembly language into a full high level scripting language. If an assembly language is akin to the alphabet then the scripting language is akin to the dictionary. That’s the best analogy I’ve got as I write this. Basically, the scripting language lets me deal with higher level game design and development, which, in turn, allows me to work much more quickly.

Since I wanted to focus on the scripting language with Case Files, I designed a game that had very modest audio/visual requirements. The initial design was that Case Files would provide multiple cases for a player to play through. Each case would provide a static postcard picture of a crime scene. The player would then search the crime scene for clues and have to answer several questions based on the clues that they found.

[<i>The Case Files of Pureluck Homes</i>]
The Case Files of Pureluck Homes
Click to view larger.

I had some vague notion that the game would be suitable for touch based devices, so I started with an interface that featured prominent controls. Partly this was done to make the controls easy to interact with on touch screens and partly it was done to make the postcard scene smaller so that I wouldn’t have to draw as much artwork (remember that I wanted to keep the visual requirements low).

I carried on with the development of Case Files in this form until May of 2010. By that point the scripting language had emerged and evolved, the underlying game engine programming was complete, and I was working on the actual game content for the different cases that players could play. And that’s when I came to a dreadful realization.

Case Files just wasn’t much fun to play.

The limited audio/visual aspect of the game proved to be a large detriment to the enjoyability of the game. The player was confronted with a static image that they had to click on to find clues. It all very much felt like using an extended menu system from a piece of office software.

I felt that if I, the creator of the game, didn’t think Case Files was very fun to play then it would be asking a lot of players to think the game was fun. Somewhat shattered, I decided to put the game into hiatus until I could figure out what, if anything, I would do with it.

Even with Case Files on indefinite hold, I couldn’t help but keep thinking about it. The game itself may not have been much fun to play, but the main characters—Homes and Ampson—kept running through my mind. I really enjoyed the characters and the way they sparked off each other. They were two characters demanding to get out. I knew I had to find a way to make that happen.

Backing up in time for a bit, there were two reasons why I wanted to be a computer programmer. The first was my dad. He was a programmer and I was amazed that he could get these beige boxes (they were beige not black back in the day, you young whippersnappers) to do all kinds of interesting things. The second big reason was that I grew up on point-n-click adventure games and I thought there would be nothing better than to create such a game of my very own. It was one of my two dreams, right next to writing a novel.

Fast forward again to the fall of 2013. Homes and Ampson were still waiting in the wings and the itch to develop another computer game was emerging once more. I took another look at the state of Case Files, my first in three years, and still felt it wasn’t much fun to play. However, it had developed the scripting language to such a degree that I saw a new possibility emerge: Case Files re-imagined as a full and proper point-n-click adventure game.

In September of 2013, design work began on Case Files, Take 2 and by October I had started programming and creating artwork for the new game. Or more appropriately, for the first demo. My intention was, and is, to create two demos, one introducing Homes and the other introducing Ampson. With the two demos released I’d then move on to the full game, which would feature both characters together.

Work was slow but steady through the end of 2013 and early 2014. Then in July of 2014 things changed again. I made the decision to leave my day job and focus on my creative endeavours. The first of which was my novel, Satin & Sutherland – The Golden Curse. The novel consumed most of my time in 2014 and released in December of that year, leaving the door open for full time development on Case Files.

Only it was no longer Case Files by that point. Some months earlier I had flipped through a thesaurus looking for other words for mystery, investigation, detective, anything that seemed to fit what the new Case Files would be. Anything that would apply equally to Homes and Ampson (because, let’s face it, The Case Files of Jane Ampson and Purluck Homes would have been an even more cumbersome title).

In my search, I stumbled upon the word “sleuthhound”, an alternative to “detective”. That was a weird moment. When I found that word it wasn’t “I guess this will work” so much as “ah-ha, this is what the game has been all this time and I’ve only just been told now.” My Cubes characters are all anthropomorphic figures: they’re all based on animals. What better name could there be for a detective in the Cubes “storyverse” than one with an animal—hound—right in it?

It’s been a long road from when Case Files was a too-simple “search the postcard” type game to its becoming the full and proper Sleuthhounds point-n-click adventure game, but it’s been a road I’ve found worth taking. And a road with its first destination very nearly in sight. I’m excitedly looking forward a couple more weeks to when the first demo can be released. So stay tuned for the upcoming news.