Wheels of Aurelia takes place in 1970s Italy. You play Lella, who's taking a road trip on the Via Aurelia. It's an interactive visual novel where you're making dialogue choices, choosing which roads to take, and deciding whether or not to pick up hitchhikers etc. The art style, unique setting, and music are what really piqued my interest.
For the iOS 11 App Store, developers now have the option for three app previews instead of only one. Studio Director Pietro Righi Riva wanted to take advantage of that feature. I took this gig as an opportunity to get a new iPad Pro to replace my ailing iPad 3. I also rented an iPhone 7 Plus from Dyal Rental.
The logistical challenge was the multiple versions of each app preview. Wheels of Aurelia plays in portrait mode on iPhone, but landscape on iPad; each app preview needed separate capture, and graphics had to be custom made for each aspect ratio. That meant a total of 6 versions. I've worked on app previews in some agencies in Los Angeles, but in those cases, the apps displayed in landscape mode on both devices, so the solution was simply some creative cropping. This usually worked just fine unless there were UI elements formatted specifically for iPhone or iPad.
This was absolutely not an option for this project.
The other challenge was figuring out how to give myself the flexibility to choose dialogue, the car model, the different areas to drive through, and the timing of each individual element. For example, if I only took dialogue from the moment it occurred in the game, I might not be able to show a wider variety of backgrounds.
My solution was to capture the game with no character dialogue overlays, and recreate all the dialogue as separate layers in After Effects.
Oh, and each preview had to be localized in 6 additional languages.
3 app previews x 2 aspect ratios x 7 languages = 42 versions!
The amount of work was further compounded because:
App preview #1 had 6 title cards + 7 dialogue scenes = 13 gfx
App preview #2 had 5 title cards + 4 dialogue scenes = 9 gfx
App preview #3 had 4 title cards + 5 dialogue scenes = 9 gfx
Multiply each of those graphics counts by 7, and that's about how many graphics files I had (not including graphics that didn't require translation). This probably could've been aided by some dynamic linking between Premiere and After Effects, but I've had troubles using that function, so I decided not to risk it on such a huge endeavor.
First let's talk about the fun stuff which is the story, direction and editing of each app preview!
The game is meant to be played in short sessions, because each trip only takes about 15-20 minutes, but it encourages multiple playthroughs because of the variety of characters you might encounter, and the multiple endings.
The main directive for these previews was that they wanted to make it clear that it's an interactive visual novel, not a racing game. I took a look at the original launch trailer; I wasn't sure whether or not the editor intended for the audience to read the dialogue in the trailer, and also there was an entire section with no dialogue overlays.
For these previews I wanted the dialogue to be the focus; the background would make it pretty, and add visual interest. I played through the game several times to see as much of the dialogue as possible, and did a breakdown to see what I had to work with.
The standout parts of the game are its characters, the setting, and time period. I don't know anything about modern Italian history, so I found it interesting when the characters talked about real life events.
I decided the previews would be:
an overview of the game
a look at the variety of characters
a focus on the time period.
Each would also have to feature at least one moment when I could show the dialogue selection interface. I had to nail down the full screen title cards as soon as possible, because they had to be translated. I went back and forth with Pietro and Dana Trebella (who worked on the messaging for the game).
The first app preview takes the broadest approach; the dialogue focuses on the road trip, self discovery, freedom, and also some direct callouts to the features, such as choosing routes, multiple endings etc.
For the second preview I tried to show the humor of the game via its colorful cast of characters. I especially like the joke at the opening with the priest. My goal was to use dialogue to show the breadth of the characters. If they were all talking about the same thing, the audience would get a narrow view.
The third preview uses topical dialogue (for the 1970s time period) to show the audience how the game uses the history to give some context, and maybe even teach them a thing or two.
All together I think these app previews give a nice variety for the interesting facets of the game. Had I made a full launch trailer I would've tried to combine these all in one, but for iTunes, the app previews are far more important because it's the first thing a potential customer sees.
Something else we went back and forth on a bit was the pace of the previews. I initially went straight for the most exciting music cue, but Pietro was worried it seemed too action-y. His hope was to attract the audience who played games like 80 Days. This direction helped me to hone the feel of the first app preview; I used a different piece of music, and let the shots breathe a bit more.
Okay, back to some technical solutions I had to come up with.
The first hurdle was replicating the dialogue bubbles. The most important part was making bubbles that would dynamically change in size based on the text that was inside of it. I knew this HAD to be done by After Effects expressions, because the amount of manual work would've been unthinkable.
Unfortunately I'm not an After Effects Expression wizard, so I had to go looking for some sort of template. I found this preset on the Creative Cow forums which worked PERFECTLY; I just had to add some rounded corners, and adjust the padding.
I also found this expression for an easy to customize typewriter effect. As always, thanks to Dan Ebberts who always seems to be the person answering expression questions in the Creative Cow forums. Btw, every time I have to fix an expression I feel like a grow a new white hair. So thank you to all game programmers out there who dealing with this stuff on a daily basis, y'all are saints.
Another issue I ran into was how the bubble moves upward when a second line is added. There's probably an expression that exists that would've solved this problem, but since time was a factor, I added some hold keyframes that I would manually adjust for every single bubble. Menial and inefficient yes, but I eventually fell into a rhythm, and it worked fine.
I also had to recreate the dialogue selection bubble, which I did by using video as a reference and instead of trying to fit the particular easing animation in the game, I just did it frame by frame for simplicity; sometimes the easiest solution is just some elbow grease! (not to say that I don't wish I was an After Effects wizard)
With the bubbles all formatted, I created templates for the iPhone and iPad layout. Even with my templates there was still some case by case tweaking I had to do on nearly every single bubble, but it still was MUCH more efficient than doing it all by hand and/or doing it all via game capture.
After the versions were locked, the localization was simply a matter of a LOT of time spent cutting and pasting to/from spreadsheets. There was a lot of reformatting because some of the translations has some very lengthy words (I'm looking at you German and Russian!) After that, it was a lot of double and triple checking the translations. At one point working on localizations it was so late at night that I knew it was better to go to sleep, and continue the next day, rather than stay up late and work slow/badly.
I briefly toyed with the possibility of having all the graphics, and all the sequences in one ENORMOUS PROJECT. But I thought better of it, and decided to duplicate my Premiere and After Effects project files to be specific to each language. The last thing I wanted to deal with were the wrong languages being rendered out with different suffixes etc. This is also when I found out that in After Effects there's no way to batch change the destination for multiple Render Queue items, WTF???
Another tool I got to help with organizing was AE Global Renamer 2, which could batch rename comps and precomps.
Fortunately I only ended up making some minor tweaks to each language, mostly related to capitalization, and some translation fixes that were needed for how the dialogue or full screen graphics were being used in the trailer versus being used in the game.
Like I said, I learned a lot about scoping for this project, but it all got done, and the game is now available in the App Store! The one thing that miffs me is on the iOS 11 App Store, the previews start auto-playing with no audio (similar to Facebook), and there's no scroll bar, so people will have to watch the preview more than once if they want to see it from beginning to end with all the audio >_<. At the beginning of the project, Pietro told me Apple encourages the use of full screen graphics, this must be why.
There's certainly nothing out there like Wheels of Aurelia, so if you want a short visual novel set in 1970s Italy, please check it out!