Tag Archives: Game Design

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.

 

Advertisements

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.


No “Mary Sue”

After learning what people mean by “Mary Sue”, I took this test for Scout, my protagonist, and scored extremely low (4 points; 16 before applying “de-suifiers”).

Yes, she figures in an otherworldly prophecy. But hey, she’s a protagonist. I guess she’s solid.

In other words, yes, the writing slavery goes on.


Musical Prison Break

This piece of music was originally done a couple years back, in a software that doesn’t allow exporting the MIDI data. Since I now work in Reaper, I had to reprogram it by hand from start to finish. The upside of this spectacle is that I can finally continue working on it.

Most of the strings part was done by the violins in the old version, because I didn’t know a whole lot about how to orchestrate things, i.e. spread them out across all the different instruments. So I wrote a violin part that should have been a viola part, and kept wondering what to do with the violas. Turns out the joke is on me.

The old version had eight instrument tracks; the new version has 23, i.e. most of the orchestra. There’s now trumpets in there, tuba, full woodwind section, solo oboe, celli, and viola. Plus the relatively new mixing and mastering chains and seperate reverb units done per section of the orchestra. Plus a decidedly non-orchestral effect: artificial stereo echo on the harp. I figure I can take some liberties like that if it adds some kick.

Best of all, I’ve got the raw data now, so FREEDOM!


What Writing Does in Game Dev

Time for an update.

Hard facts

On the technical side, I’m now working on a new PC that should be Unreal-capable. We’ll see when I get that running, I might feel inspired to start porting the first level to Unreal.

Truth is, as may be obvious in hindsight, that the switch away from the Quake engine was more of an obstacle than it should have been. I lost the ability to quickly prototype. But in the end, it’s better for the project. It may look like the old Daikatana mistake, but there’s a difference. This is not 1997 and Quake doesn’t cut it anymore, not in the face of Unreal, Unity and Cryengine. So I still feel the switch was necessary and justified.

It’s simply a fact of life that the FTE engine was too buggy, that I couldn’t do the things I needed to do, and that every time I broke one of those invisible Quake-technology walls I ended up in a minefield of untested things prone to failure. So while the engine switch did end up hurting the project, there really was no alternative. There is Darkplaces, but that would have meant another risky wager that a largely untested engine based on 1996 tech would be better suited than the first one. It just didn’t seem like a smart thing to do.

We’re slowly coming up, by our own boot-straps if you will, to a state where we can likely do a hopefully soft landing on a different platform. One of the environments was already dropped into Unity just to see what happens. Turns out it’s very doable. Unreal won’t be that different.

So engine wise, cutting the cable sort of spun me into a different orbit. Which took some time. Not least because I was busy thinking about more fundamental things.

Squishy stuff

Of course that’s not what most of the development time was sunk into over the last two years or so. People tend to not understand why all this writing is necessary. I won’t go into it much further, just know that the script basically IS the game, just minus the technical implementation side. It is simply the case that the style of game development I’m currently doing is so far removed from Quake modding that there’s not even any common ground I could use to explain it to that crowd.

We’re talking apples and oranges. Quake modding is largely mechanical. Change a line of code, and you’ll make the grenade launcher spit voreballs instead. Yay. The communication problem simply lies in the fact that modding Quake’s pineapple launcher and making a game like Scout’s Journey are two different universes. It’s like the language isn’t even the same.

The entire paradigm has changed. In late 2013, Scout’s Journey was basically a Quake mod that started to mightily rattle the cage. Development was largely writing code and painting textures, blocking in level geometry or modelling weapons. Roughly the stuff we did in Remake Quake, plus new problems such as doing terrain, being a lot more detailed and breaking the BSP visibility stuff to get it running fast enough. Very down to earth stuff in gamedev terms.

Real game development in 2016 is a completely different thing.

Scout’s Journey development isn’t based around just going in and writing code or smacking brushes together. It is turned inside out, or rather, right side out. The mechanical aspect of code and polygons is only an extension of the ephemeral core that is plot and design. This brings with it the realization that scriptwriting is in fact the new engine room. Not 3D modelling suites and not level editors and not IDEs.

The holy trinity of Scout’s Journey style game development are actually writing, art and programming, with the latter two being extensions of the former. Which is how it should be. It is a common complaint by game writers that companies are trying to tack on some writing on the tail end of an already half finished game. That is doomed to fail, and is what I’m NOT doing.

Simply put, a lot more development happens BEFORE the art and code stages. This is akin to saying, “hold on a moment, put down whatever tool you’re using and start actually thinking.” And this is the opposite of the modding mentality, which is “I’ll just go in and do this…”

Game development SHOULD start with writing. Unless it’s Pong or Tetris.

Translation

bzzz02

As an example, this lightning monster cage thing (from Remake Quake, around 2011?) was a result of the “I’ll just do something cool” approach. No doubt that approach is a valuable tool. But Scout’s Journey then takes something like this and turns it into that:

#script

An apparatus, like two half-moons made of humming electrodes, seems to draw energy from the creature itself in periodical crackling flashes. Hoses and cables stuck in the creature are drawing its blue ichor, in a slow drip, into a large glass vial.

Scout slowly wanders around it, circling the cage. She wonders, ”What is this thing doing?” Big Bear says, ”Whatever it is, keep your hands off of it. You’ll just run into trouble again.” The goddess speaks up: ”May I look through your eyes?” ”You may.” Scout gazes at the entire contraption. The goddess says, ”This right here says to me: Naruuk, the Star-Eater was here.” Scout keeps circling the machinery. The camera moves in large sweeps.

”He hates me because I’m of the Earth, and he thinks the Earth his slave and spits on it. It is the same with the Luminar. You know now that there are many worlds. And just like that, Nature finds a way to protect them, and tend to them. That is what the Luminar do. They are weavers of the great web. Holy servants of Nature.”

Scout fearfully reaches out to touch the creature. It doesn’t respond.

”They’re killing them”, Scout says. The goddess replies, ”Yes, they’re killing them. For fear, for greed, for negligence, they’re killing them.”

/script

So the idea of the shambler cage is still in there, just minus Quake’s shamblers, obviously. That’s because instead of monsters, Scout’s Journey has just another faction of intelligent beings that happen to be victimized by the real antagonist (and pissed off about it). Who, needless to say, was more than a little inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s “elder gods” and so forth. I mean, with a name like “the Star-Eater.” And this, especially once Scout (and the little voices in her head)  encounter it, creates something more interesting than a random eye catching landmark on a Quake level. Basically, something like the shambler cage just makes the player say “neat” and move on to kill more monsters. The cage in Scout’s Journey has become much more than that. It became an anchor point for story, characters, philosophy, conflicts and what have you.

A whole lot of the stuff I did in Remake Quake was the nucleus for ideas that turned into something meaningful in Scout’s Journey, but only because of the writing.

The next step, after writing it out like the example above, is to turn it into new concept art (the cage won’t look quite the same, the size relations are different, the meaning is more complex) and only then modelling it, putting it into a level, and coding stuff like particle effects.

A lot of similar features and landmarks from my Remake Quake levels did survive into Scout’s Journey, just laden with different meaning.

Hopefully this gives people an idea what the writing phase is good for and what can be done with it. It’s like metamorphosis.

That’ll be it for now. In the interest of better understanding what is going on behind the sometimes slow-moving blog. The writing is unfortunately not as photogenic as simply posting assets.

Oh, and because the world is what it is: I call dibs on my own script. All rights reserved.


Pole hammers and word monsters

poleaxe_hammer

I was inspired to do this concept of a poleaxe-like weapon after watching a guy talk about a Danish axe on youtube. Yes, I watch stuff like that. I want to keep the Scout’s Journey weaponry halfway realistic (if you count laser pistols and insect-powered biorailguns and plasma cannons that look like half a motorcycle among those) but I get the feeling this weapon kinda stretches it a little. It does look cool, so I might eventually fit it in there. I maybe overdid it with the energy weapons for the Order faction a little, they are some conservative guys after all who value a good hunk of steel, so one of them might step up and adopt the hammer-axe.  Who knows. Then again, I’m still sketchy on what weapon to give my “army of the dead” type NPCs, but does this look like something the good guys would use?

Exactly, it looks like it was made to smash the infidels. So, in the Order pile it goes. It does fit the bill of sci-fi mutations of medieval weapons that I’ve got going on, so it’s probably a contender. Sci-fi inquisition type stuff.

I’ve hit a snag with my script. It really is very close to done now, as I said to my beta-reading author friend Dan recently, I doubt there will be another major revision. Just got to go over it with the fine comb a couple more times. This and that needs smoothing over still. But I might just take a time out from writing and do other stuff again. My fingers are itching for some art. If only it was easier to find beta readers. Is reading some kind of lost art? You only need to wave a couple-thousand word document around and people scatter in all directions. What the heck. Makes me wonder how people react to books these days. You know, those 300-page monsters made out of dead trees.

The horror, the horror.

 


Gods and Games, Vol. II

Thinking on from the Overwatch Devi stuff, how to depict gods in games respectfully?

Environment

The obvious way: Depict gods in largely the same way as the adherents of that faith do. Statues, murals, parts of the environment. An example I can think of is the statue of Shiva and Kali in Tomb Raider: Underworld. The statue looks pretty traditional, but is part of a puzzle and will move to reveal the level exit in the end. This is not respectless, gets people interested in who Shiva and Kali are, and makes for a nice looking game setpiece. Lara Croft mentions the names herself and reads a few inscriptions about Hindu tradition. The developers get a free motif for their game, but also acknowledge the source. Well done. A gift for a gift!

To me, this seems not only respectful, but fitting. Gods are a part of the real world environment for religious people, so doing that in video games follows logically. It is unobtrusive and adds flair, the statue is not out of place in an overgrown temple ruin (it’s almost to be expected, just like seeing depictions of saints in a church), while actual worshippers will just be pleasantly surprised to see something familiar. It’s also about twenty meters tall which adds to the dignified appearance.

Yes, the statue can be controlled by the player, but not directly, and the player has to put in some work (platforming etc.) to make it move. The level (“Coastal Thailand”) is cleverly designed so the two ancient gods themselves seem to reward the player and allow them to proceed. This is a respectful treatment. No problem with this at all. A-OK in my book. More than OK in fact. The developers clearly did their research and managed to embed Shiva and Kali in their game without distorting the faith and tradition. This can’t possibly offend anyone. I personally really like it.

Non-Player Characters (NPCs)

Depicting deities as characters is a lot more difficult to do respectfully. Suddenly you have a walking, talking image of a deity in your game. There’s much more that can go wrong here. You see, deities from actually existing religions and pantheons are not video game characters by nature. You have to treat them as pre-existing characters from a real-world context that have certain traits in the minds of people. Much like putting celebrities in your video game, or, actually, much like putting Hatsune Miku or Mickey Mouse in your game!

Only that there is a trademark and copyright on Hatsune Miku, so you could never get away with it unless you have a license.

Deities are from a time where all that didn’t exist. I’m not sure if the old Celtic or Greek people had a concept of intellectual property. Hence, no one can claim copyright to deities, but hold on – it’s that respect thing again. An entire culture and tradition worshipped these gods for a long, long time. Of course every Greek stonemason or artist could make images of Athena, because no copyright, but all of them did it respectfully. Even the Romans depicted Greek (and Egyptian, and Celtic) gods with respect, even painters in the christian era did it. Because frankly, anything else would have been tasteless.

Now there are differences between religions, as I pointed out. Take the Germanic mythology: There is a story of how Thor was dressed up as a woman and almost married to a giant. There is a story of how Loki changed into a mare and gave birth to Odin’s horse, Sleipnir. There is even a story where Loki accuses pretty much any goddess of sleeping around, and gets away with it. Heck, there is a story of Loki tying his balls to a goat, with them both pulling on the rope, to make the goddess Skadi laugh as a kind of payment for her father’s slaying by the Aesir.

So when you have a mythology like that, you can take some liberties. But never forget that these “characters” are beloved to many, and that not all the stories are like that, and don’t overdo it. Don’t resort to senseless violence and gore (I’m looking at you, God of War) where it isn’t appropriate.

Don’t be a jerk. Do your research. Talk to people. Keep it sort of civil.

An easy way to avoid any and all complications is to depict fantasy versions of the gods. This was done well in the fantasy game “Too Human” which depicts Norse gods as cybernetically-enhanced beings and takes it from there. When it’s pure fantasy, with some actual creativity on show by the developer, it’s hard to take it the wrong way. You could also create similar characters that have different names (that’s what Scout’s Journey does, by the way). The key here is “creativity”.

An example from another medium is the Neil Gaiman novel, “American Gods”. In it, gods from many pantheons are struggling to make a living in modern America. But what’s most important, Gaiman takes all these traditional characters and depicts them as people with wants and needs, very close to humans, which is not out of line with for example Norse mythology. They are treated with respect, even when they live in dingy apartment houses and smoke too much and no one gives them any attention anymore. You can’t even get a bottle of Soma in this friggin’ world, you know. It is sometimes heartwarming, as in a scene where Odin makes Easter cry because nobody remembers her despite all the Easter bunnies in the world. This isn’t respectless because it’s the truth. And somehow we know that these aren’t really the old gods from the mythology because Gaiman goes on about how everything in America is basically an imported version of the original, hence the title. The novel is incredibly funny and sad, but always tasteful, well-researched and in character of the various deities.

Player avatars

Here’s where it gets tricky. While you have lots of freedom with fleshing out NPCs, a player-controlled avatar is just a shell in most games. And this is where the Overwatch Devi stuff becomes so bothersome. It’s like wearing a goddess as a costume and controlling her like a toy. The context is a problem, too: This is a multiplayer shooter, so you wear your Hindu goddess costume-toy mostly to kill and be killed and not waste a second thought. It’s not a real character. Skins like these are just an extension of your e-peen. Your entertainment is all that matters here, and the undoubtedly huge sum of money that Blizzard makes with it.

The Devi skin is emptied of all meaning and character, except as a remote controlled weapon, and given as a plaything or status symbol to thrill-seekers.

That’s just not very creative or thoughtful. It’s hollow, and in the end it serves the interest of making a buck just like weapon skins in Counter-Strike. A Hindu goddess IS NOT Mickey Mouse and she’s not an AK-47 or Hatsune Miku. Close, but no cigar. There’s a difference in what she means to people. And that is the key thing to take away from this.

I don’t doubt that letting the player play as a god or goddess is possible in a respectful way, but it takes a little more than this. Yes, deities like Hel or Kali could be depicted in a pretty dark way and it would be in character, although all the games depicting Hel as an evil mastermind are missing the point – “Viking: Battle for Asgard” is an example. If the next “God of War” falls into the same trap, I’ll be disappointed. Again, do your research.

Mars could be depicted as a warrior. Loki could be depicted as somewhat of a rogue. But why not invest some creativity instead of just taking the likeness and slapping it onto a player avatar because it’s not copyrighted and hence costs no money. That’s kinda lame.

There are things that you can’t put a price on, things that copyright and trademark cannot even begin to describe. I’m glad those things exist. Don’t throw them to the dogs.