Development Update #2
THE BIG PICTURE
During our Kickstarter campaign we were criticised for showing a lot of technology but not enough of a game or story. This was frustrating for us because actually the dynamic story is one of the aspects of the game we're most excited about. Technology is just a tool to support that vision and make the world more immersive.
We talked about a "dynamic story" but that could mean anything. Because we don't know how much we can accomplish it's been difficult for us to go into much detail, and we couldn't promise things we weren't sure we can deliver. Now we're actively working towards this goal and we need to tell you what we're working on. Still this is a complex topic that is difficult to explain concisely so please bear with us as we try to convey our ideas.
We feel that in recent years the focus of most CRPGs has shifted from creating an immersive world to providing a streamlined gameplay experience. Rarely is there room for subtlety or engaging your wits. Games have been evolving into something where anyone can play for a while and feel they've achieved something. Ultimately though, our achievements are purely virtual, and we didn't even have fun. You're not going anywhere, the game is. You're just along for the ride and nothing you do really matters. We don't exactly come out feeling like we've accomplished something, more like we've satisfied some addiction. It's easy to forget, but we know that games can be genuinely fun, worthwhile and stimulating.
The kind of roleplaying experience we dreamed of and hope to create is one that hasn't been possible without a human game master who can intelligently respond to all your actions. We want your actions to have meaningful effects, not as pre-scripted "choice and consequences" over which we have no real insight or control, but as a world that is affected realistically by everything you do. We want you to be able to make mistakes, to fail and to feel that your successes are your own. We even want you to accomplish things that we as designers have never foreseen. We want a world capable of supporting your most creative strategies, where hypothetical scenarios turn out to be real. We're talking about roleplaying, immersion, being master of your own character in a world that can make you believe it is real.
From a core gameplay perspective most of this is fairly easy to achieve. Interactivity, simulation, lots of freedom and some basic design decisions can go a long way towards providing a very engaging gameplay experience. The storytelling aspect however is more challenging and we know the value of a good story. This is where immersion comes into play and it must all tie in together. The realistic and interactive world concept must extend to this too.
Most of the story and plotlines in the game are not driven by the player, but players can become involved. Even when not involved they might be indirectly affecting how events unfold. The world is in motion and we're talking about much more than daily schedules and some basic behaviours. Here we will give you an example of a plotline that does not directly concern the player. Its purpose is to provide the scope for a meaningful interaction with the world and add depth to it.
A lord who suffers from heart disease has a dearly loved daughter as only heir. A neighbouring lord has ambitions to marry one of his sons to the first lord's daughter, but they are not on good terms and the union is repeatedly refused. The second lord hires some thugs to kidnap the daughter. He also has the local apothecary's stores destroyed so that he can no longer produce a rare heart medicine. The first lord will fall ill and the second lord's son will carry out a daring rescue of the daughter, thus securing his place at her side.
Immediately we see various opportunities for you to be hired or otherwise employed, if you are a likely candidate. You might be asked to kidnap the daughter, to search for and rescue her, to find more of the rare herb, to urgently deliver new medicine to the stricken lord. But just because you were hired this doesn't mean you'll do what you were asked. You might simply report the kidnapping plot, you might demand your own ransom for the daughter, you might destroy the herb rather than retrieve it.
While you might indeed not be tasked with any such thing, you may still witness these events as they transpire and alter the conditions that guide them. As an example, you could steal the thugs' weapons in their sleep, thereby delaying the ambush. Perhaps later you'll witness them looking for new weapons.
So, we have a well-structured story that remains completely dynamic. There are only a few possible outcomes but many ways to arrive at them. Most of this should be possible just because that's how things work. There is no need for actual involvement in or knowledge of the plotline. Besides the fundamental outcomes of all this there are many smaller ones, many factors that will guide and affect future events. In becoming involved you might gain rewards, allies or enemies, you might shift the balance of power and ideally set greater events in motion.
One of the core concepts is that NPCs never do things just because we designers said they should. Everything they say and do is the result of a decision. They have goals, ambitions, emotions and various traits that guide everything they do. To create behaviours and plotlines we first have to create motivations. NPCs will always have choices and they will make one because the conditions are right. A great many parameters are involved in making any of these decisions and altering any of them can change the course of events. This doesn't just apply to specific plotlines, we want every apparently insignificant NPC action and behaviour to be driven by decisions and always to react to changing conditions.
Can we really do all this? As we've said before, we have to try. It is difficult, we ourselves have to occasionally remind ourselves why it might be possible. We are committed to it and actively working towards it. To us this is the only way worth doing it. It’s the same attitude we have with everything. We're doing combat using physics because that's kind of how it works. It might be far from perfect but it's a lot better and infinitely less boring than comparing a couple of numbers.
We are making real progress here but the most challenging work is likely still ahead of us. Our priorities have been in developing the foundations that can support all this. In particular we have been developing the systems and tools that allow us to create content that can support this dynamic world.
We are attaching meaning to every single thing, real or conceptual, in the game. Nothing in our world is just a visual prop and ideally we want NPCs to understand everything they say and do. When creating an object we don't just make a 3D model and maybe some script or code for how it is used in some quest, we create a "thing" and then attach any number of additional pre-existing conceptual types. These implicitly describe what the thing is or in what ways it can be perceived, what it can be used for and what its properties are in whatever circumstantial role it is adopting. This gives us a foundation for AI perception and understanding, interactivity and an intuitive, unified way to assign properties to absolutely everything. We have also developed a character editor and these things are allowing us to place actual interactive objects and characters in the game instead of just 3D models with physics and animations.
More recently we also succeeded in finalising how dialogue will work and we developed a complete and very neat tool with which to write actual interactive dialogue for the game. The dialogue system works closely with our AI and dynamic event system. In many ways it is like a scaled-down version of our event system. We have had a number of original ideas on making dialogue more dynamic and natural. Saying something is a decision like taking any other action. It is subject to circumstance and any external factors that might apply. Dialogue occurs in real time, people might talk over each other, grow impatient, add to what they said if there's an awkward silence, react to external events, etc. Information is being conveyed and others might be listening, they might even join the conversation. Characters are always at the mercy of their perception; roles and identities are open to interpretation.
These core components are fundamental to content creation and now that they and a number of core game systems and technologies are in place we can start focusing more on content and gameplay.
During the Kickstarter campaign we talked about an advanced slotless inventory system that would allow characters to wear combinations of many different types of apparel and how these would interact realistically. We've implemented this inventory system exactly as we described it. We have almost 200 virtual slots that can be used in any combination. Clothes and other apparel can be worn together and they cover and interact with each other.
Thanks to the tools we've developed we can now also give items properties. Armour offers localised protection to different parts of the body which weapons accurately collide with. A really nice feature is that you also hear different sounds such as fleshy impacts, jingling chain or clattering plate mail depending on where a blow lands.
Containers are also slotless, which means you can freely arrange items within them. Bags or other containers have limited capacities but serve to provide more visual space to arrange items rather than increasing capacity. This slotless system allows us to do things like hide objects under others or arrange them in meaningful ways. The high-quality icons you see are actually rendered dynamically from the same models we use in the game, which means they are always 100% accurate representations of the object including any variations in materials, dyes or other conditions that may apply.
BUILDING A LAND MASS
Our terrain is procedurally generated but until now this was very basic and just too random. To make an actual island or even just features like beaches we would have to sculpt them by hand. Now we're developing the actual land mass for the game and we need something quite specific. We've been extending our procedural tools significantly so that they can accept shapes and other major features such as rivers from images. Basically we can draw a flat 2D map and just convert it to a 3D terrain.
Below is an early version of our map based on the 2D image inputs for the terrain generator:
An example of procedurally generated coast following a map contour:
We've been developing new types of environments and also some rendering tricks to make them look better. Our environments need to be quick to make, fast loading and to support completely dynamic objects, lighting and shadows. To add depth and realism to these environments we came up with a versatile rendering feature we call "dirt mapping". This is a very fast procedural process that adds localised dirt to surfaces, this improves on the flat appearance that purely dynamic lighting and tiling textures often result in. It requires virtually no additional data and fits with our iterative workflow where we can instantly preview the results of what we're working on.
Here is an example of dirt mapping applied to an interior, an apothecary's shop:
Here is another example of an outdoor architectural structure:
NON HUMAN RACES
Having almost finalised the complex process which provides us with our human population we've started working on non humans. We plan to introduce 5 additional humanoid races using similar methods and features. For some of these races we also hope to include more drastic variations on their physiology and appearance. The most complete of these races at this stage is that of Ogres, but two others are well under way. Here is an example of an ogre, bare and clad in armour.
With our efforts focused on many core systems and everything we needed to be productive, combat had taken a back seat. Now that we have functional characters and equipment, combat is back on the stage. Items now have properties and we are developing the skill system for characters. With renewed interest and fresh insights, however, we also made some huge steps forward with animations. We've yet to hire an animator but with improved tools and a unified character system we had to make new animations and they are of significantly higher quality. Most importantly, however, we've made some breakthroughs with the animation system itself: characters move more naturally, the glaring problems in our early videos are gone and interaction with user input works better. The results are, we think, truly spectacular.
We've also introduced two-handed weapons. They are ridiculously fun. If you're walking around Siena and you hear grown men screaming excitedly like little girls to the sound of combat, it's probably us "testing" two-handed weapons.
Once we have polished and put together a couple more things we will release a new public gameplay video showcasing all these new features.
Brendan has been hard at work replacing our hastily assembled website. It's still a work in progress but the new website is now online. Come visit us and don't forget to stop by our forums to discuss this update or anything else!
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