Category Archives: game development

general update.

So, here’s where it’s at with Scout’s Journey development as of now. I apologize in advance for the wall of text. I hope it is worth reading. A better format may be forthcoming.

General situation

Game development has been continuous from 2012 until today and is still going strong, with a recent milestone reached in that the plot is completely written. Money is an issue, but that has always been the case and is no blocker. My health is not optimal, and something is being done about that. Also no real blocker, but bothersome and has definitely impacted the pace of development in the last 3 years. However, progress is made all the time.

A major problem is just sheer loneliness; few people in the indie game scene are doing what I am doing, although reports keep popping up of people finishing games after near-decade-long development etc., so others are out there. But day-to-day exchange with similar projects is rare because they almost don’t exist. People from a modding or general indie background often flat out don’t understand what the project is: A standalone story-based first person 3D game with combat, stealth and exploration mechanics. Such a thing is incredibly rare in the indie game world.

Timeline

  • Game started out as a collection of ideas during work on Remake Quake, a Quake mod, from 2007 to 2012. Lots of these ideas didn’t fit the Quake mold.
  • SJ became its own project in the summer of 2012, running on a variety of idtech-based engines (RMQengine, Warsow engine, FTE, Darkplaces etc). Tests were also done on Unity relatively early.
  • Main asset development is in Blender.
  • A dedicated codebase (gamecode) existed for the game while it ran on the idtech engines, and was developed relatively far, especially the RPG aspects (interactive GUI, novel gameplay mechanics, custom all-original NPC dialogue parsing etc were all functional).
  • Lots of assets were developed, including two full levels of a scale much bigger than Quake (later divided into sublevels for performance), two more gigantic locations that were leftovers from RMQ, a full weapon lineup, props etc.
  • Levels were converted from BSP to mesh with meshcollision relatively early.
  • Terrain modelling methods were tested and refined.
  • The game went to combination lightmaps/realtime lights pretty early.
  • Character modelling has begun but was put on hold when it turned out that the story side of the game was a mess. (Also, that is hard.)

Changes

The idtech engines were abandoned along the way simply because I deemed them not reliable/ rugged enough for this type of project. I still believe that was the right decision. Unreal is the goal, but from the end of 2013 and the spring of 2014 onward, most work was done on the storyline, with art and music on the side. I simply needed to bring up the rear, instead of blindly marching on with levels and assets, although those have not been abandoned.

It is simply the case that level design needs to proceed in accordance with the story. If the plot says “Scout goes from here to there”, the levels need to be laid out in the same manner. And if the script says, “Scourge Martyrs attack”, then concept art needs to be made and gameplay mechanics and weapons need to be developed for that enemy type.

This is why the script needs to be in place BEFORE levels and monsters etc. are finalized. And lots of game projects don’t understand this in time. I believe Rhianna Pratchett has mentioned this – you cannot graft a story onto a mostly finished game, it has to be done story first.

Mechanics

A game design document was compiled from roughly 2012 to 2015, ever changing especially in the core gameplay department. Broadly speaking, the game turned from a first person shooter into more of a stealth and exploration game with combat largely optional.

The quake-style encounter design was completely removed and a dynamic runtime-based patrol and AI group system was substituted. In plain English: The levels are populated with patrols and checkpoints etc. by the program during runtime, and enemies can dynamically call for reinforcements or do a tactical retreat. This suits the stealthy gameplay much better. Fundamentals of this were actually implemented in QuakeC already, with the AI controller being nicknamed “Mother” after the computer from the Alien movies. Large influences were the ALife system from Stalker and some work done in RMQ on randomized monster placement.

Writing

Writing is incredibly hard to master. (Most people have probably heard of the 10,000 hour rule.) Here’s a chronological breakdown:

  • End of 2012, a loose plot emerged from the sequence of locations.
  • During 2013, a cast of supporting characters developed.
  • Factions and their relations developed in the game world.
  • 2014-15, I started to get a grip on the entire writing thing.
  • Lots of feedback was received from “beta readers”.
  • Consequently, a lot of rewriting happened.
  • 2016 – 17 was a time of constant gradual improvements.
  • Two (!) artificial languages were developed.
  • Some holes in the plot were incredibly hard to fill.
  • The protag, Scout, was a difficult character to write.

Only recently did everything line up. The format of the script changed several times, because there really is no standard in game writing. This is uncharted territory. The beta readers and writing buddies were incredibly helpful here.

Would the real Scout please stand up?

As for Scout herself, she originally was supposed to be a female version of Ranger, the Quake protagonist. Then the entire Quake mod thing fell apart. Suddenly, Scout became a person.

She wanted to talk. She started to take on a life of her own. So did other characters. Scout does some outrageous things in the story, such as coming back to life (twice), meeting the gods, having a near death experience, travel between worlds and outside of them, encounter her childhood self, and set off a number of conflicts among the various factions, turning friends to enemies and vice versa.

In the beginning, she was overly passive and lacked agency. Getting her behind the wheel, and having her be an active protagonist and a moving force, was a piece of work. Getting in her head and understanding what makes her special was incredibly difficult. She is different from the usual game protagonist. Even her ingame interface is different from other games. Even the controls differ (WASD is still there, but using tools and weapons is done differently).

Scout carries the entire game though, mechanically and plot wise, so she needed to be rock solid. I’m not sure there is any other game protagonist quite like her.

Transcending

Over the course of writing, it became clear that not only Scout transcends video game (and human) standards, but the game itself transcends the shooter and stealth genres. Antagonists can be stabbed and slashed, obstacles can be overcome, but Scout’s major personal problem can neither be dodged nor shot to pieces. The end of the script also obliterates the difference between interactive and noninteractive content. It doesn’t even matter anymore.

Current status

I’m deeply wondering about how we can really tell stories in games. What the narrative structure can be. How interactive and cinematic toolkits can be combined in this medium.

Practically speaking, it is hard to overstate the importance of the recent milestone. A few things have to be plugged from the synopsis into the main script yet, and some dialogue has to be written out, that kind of stuff. But we’re really on top of things here. We have climbed the mountain. I still have a hard time believing that. It was such a slog. I keep expecting the next sheer cliff face, but I’m not seeing any. I feel like I’m going back to art and asset production soon-ish.

Some other stuff has been accomplished besides writing, namely music work and some mechanics polish as well as research and experimentation. For instance, I have a concept for loot boxes that work, giving you the excitement of opening surprise boxes but without the bullshit monetisation schemes attached. I’m very closely watching things like that.

I’ve been thinking about making videos for a while. I realize walls of text are hard to read. Bear with me.

Please note:

Help is always welcome. I’m having to cope with a lot of isolation. I barely have people to talk this stuff over with. If you want to read some of the script, look at some of the mechanics, need some qc code, want to talk level design, donate old hardware, man, I would be glad to oblige you.

 

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Told.

goats_head_red

This guy is still coming at you.

The story is told. The Scout’s Journey plot is fully developed. The synopsis is 13 pages.

The full script, including dialogue and gameplay and audio logs, is near 200 (compare 120 pages for a typical film script), but the final bricks that fell into place during writing the synopsis still need to be put in. The game has no more than 12 audio logs, but they are slightly longer than usual. The beginning was recently rewritten again to let the player have control of Scout in under five minutes (now stop nagging, John Walker). Cutscenes will be skippable after watching once.

Pending new feedback or ultra-amazing ideas, this is a major milestone.

This part of the game really is back-breaking work. I’m finished.


Up Against

upagainst_overview

Quick two-player duel map, “Up Against”, for Command & Conquer 3 Kane’s Wrath.  Download available from ModDB.

Took about three days to make. It’s very fun for me to learn new tools of game making, including historical ones, so I do these little one-offs sometimes. Last time it was Torchlight, I believe, but I got bored with that before I could finish the map. Kane’s Wrath still has a player base, so perhaps this ends up in a map pack or something. That would be cool.

Got any suggestions as to what else I should try?


Level designer popcorn

Rejoice, children of Nod! Small excursion into level design for an RTS game, in this case Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars / Kane’s Wrath. An old game by now, but still has a few tricks up its sleeve such as the rather gorgeous volumetric light ray effect that lends the game world a feeling of depth and mystery. Stock maps often go for a greenish fog to portray the game’s creeping Tiberium infestation, but I chose a blood red hue which I think goes well with the desert textures.

Here’s without post processing. See the difference. My eyes! It just blends a lot better on the high settings, doesn’t it.

I’m just practicing detailing, checking out the wealth of assets and having some fun. I’ll file it under art practice. *cough* The game is well worth checking out, the level editor “Worldbuilder” is freely available. Nice textures, fully 3D, realtime lighting and post processing options, what’s not to like? Makes for an excellent toy.


Good progress recently

After weeks of bottling up various ideas and feeling blocked or uninspired, I got down to work again. My massive editing and rewriting pass had stopped at the end of Chapter 3 of Scout’s Journey, half a year ago, and the next two chapters were a mess of stuff in my head, especially Chapter 5. I knew where I wanted to go with it all, but couldn’t put it in a mental order that I could have written down. And I had gotten some feedback that challenged me to make my characters more distinctive. So I kinda started very loosely rewriting a scene in Chapter 1 where my two protagonists (Scout herself and the main impact character) have their first one-on-one. This was a place where I could lay on some more character. I carried that around for a couple days, then got down to sorting it out and editing it down. It was OK. I was actually working again.

Next thing, I had one of those moments where you wake up with a completely new scene in your head that goes in the place of an old one. But this was so much better. It was the part of the game where Scout is introduced. At first this new scene appeared very unlike everything else, except Scout was fully characterized in two and a half pages and like 10 lines of dialogue. It was too good to be true. Sometimes inspiration strikes out of the blue and gives you a huge puzzle piece that you were only dimly aware you needed. But boy, this does a heck of a lot to kickstart Scout’s entire character. And it really drives everything that happens in Chapter 1.

Around the same time, I had another idea that kinda pulls in an important stringer in a layer of the game that has to do with Scout’s ability to connect with a character who becomes a major ally. The key here was that Scout can do something that otherwise, only children can. It’s like she has access to a part of her mind that allows her to do pretty unique things. This was very easy to integrate, it required rewriting a couple lines only, but at the same time it was like putting an additional steel I-beam into a building that really reinforces the entire thing. Afterwards I didn’t understand how I could have missed that –  everything I had previously written was so close to the right place but the spark just didn’t connect. Well, it’s done now.

Then, Chapter 4 started to assemble itself into something that made a lot of sense. Chapter 4 is very focused on Scout and her exploration, stealth and combat abilities. Real first person action stuff, with not a lot of story interference and almost a feel of loneliness to it. This makes for a nice contrast with Chapter 3, which is unusually story heavy with several factions and a dozen characters colliding like a car crash among a lot of scripted stuff. So I really started to lose my doubts about the chapter sequence – giving the player all that freedom and even having an extended FPS sequence at the end of Chapter 4 is a good thing at that point in the game. The player is going to be like, “let me play!” after Chapter 3, and this should just deliver nicely.

But I only sketched it out for now, I’m gonna do the actual rewrite later, because I got real busy with Chapter 7, which is to say, the endgame. I got it to the point where the end kinda mirrors the beginning, which was one of the criticisms I had gotten – that the end didn’t work. Well, it does now.

I got Chapter 5 buzzing around my head – it’s another exploration heavy thing with a main storyline quest that spans the entire game world – but I haven’t done much rewriting yet. I wrote a new chapter ending because a main thing needed to be foreshadowed for the new ending. I guess I’ll just splatter it all over the page and then clean it up some time from now. I decided against Scout having a romance option in there though, it’s just not that kind of game. Otherwise it’s currently like a ball of yarn needing to be unravelled.

Anyway, that’s the progress report. It’s not like I’m doing nothing. I’m surprised that the middle chapters are such a bitch to get right, but I’m closing in on them. I’ve got Chapters 1-3 and 7 largely done and major inroads into 4, 5 and 6.

Phew.

 

 

 

 

 


Well worth watching

Music producer and composer Rick Beato sounds off with game composer and programmer Brian Schmidt.

From 1999-2008, Schmidt was the program manager of the Xbox Audio and Voice Technologies division at Microsoft and was responsible for much of the audio architecture for the Xbox and Xbox 360. He created the start up sound for the original Xbox console, using ‘old-school’ techniques to create an 8-second sound using only 25 kilobytes of memory. (Wikipedia)

We learn about the history of the craft and working on game audio using tools such as FMOD. Highly recommended if you’re doing audio for video games. Rick Beato’s entire channel is very good for people interested in music.


Looking at it like this

Here’s a blurb I wrote for a writing discussion elsewhere to describe the way I handle the “chosen one” trope in Scout’s Journey, but I thought better of it and posted it here for your amusement and to jog my memory. Because I found this the first pretty apt description of it that I wrote. It almost gives me a new perspective.

“She is brought in unaware by forces outside her control, who intend her to be a sacrifice to a Big Bad. The player learns this before she does. Along the way, it turns out that she does have a skill, making friends with people who looked like certain enemies, thus kicking off a conflict in the enemy faction which ends up helping her. Through sheer curiosity, she makes contact with someone who is equally lost, and who turns out to be Big Bad’s nemesis. She only learns this through open-mindedness and careful listening. The prophecy comes in the form of a children’s story. This nemesis has to be freed from an age of imprisonment; as for what she ends up having to do, she only understands right when Big Bad gets his paws on her.”

In other news, I got the flu, and it sucks. I forgot how much it sucks.

Take care guys, and whack a nazi for me when you see one. Seriously, what’s going on with the world?