Development Update: First new images
New Development Update #1
This is the first of what will be monthly development updates from here on.
As some of you saw, in the previous update some months ago I described the difficult decision to rebuild the game in a new engine relatively late in the process. None of this was easy, and it wasn't something I took lightly. I'm acutely aware of the timeline and how many years it's been since this game was originally pitched, but I simply wasn't willing to accept the prospect of the game crossing the finish line as a technical mess, fraught with not only performance and stability issues but some design problems as well. The ship has sailed on being able to be proud of my production timeline, but I'm unwilling to compromise on the game qualitatively. That ship hasn't sailed. The game has to be something I'm proud of.
Under the previous engine, the technical restrictions didn't only impact performance and stability, they were also creatively stifling and the engine itself served as a near impenetrable barrier to consoledom. As a console gamer, myself, this is no small problem.
Over the past few months I've been not only learning new skills and software (C#, Unity, and Spine 2D) but I've taken this as an opportunity to re-evaluate the game design itself. The general premise remains the same, but what specific systems weren't working well? In what ways have I evolved as a designer since the beginning of this process? What have I learned that I can apply now with this rebuild?
The new build of the game is still really early and raw, but it's to the point where I can show you what it looks like and it will resemble a game and you'll understand what it is you're seeing. I wanted to post my first monthly update at the beginning of January, as seemed fitting, but it just wasn't the case yet that I had anything worth showing.
Here's a quick peak at the full game in motion. The reason this update is private is because the look and features of the game - While mostly dialed in - Aren't finalized yet, and I don't want to go fully public until it's a bit further along.
(if the clip shows up small, right click it and select "view image source" to see it better)
This is the new starter area of the game, marked by dead woods, dead people, dead machines, and all the dead things ever. It sets the table for what the game is about. I apologize that the clip isn't long, but there's a lot going on to discuss. I'll go over what's different and new point by point and then we'll look at a couple of other things.
The first thing you'll notice is the art style of the characters is a little different. This is because I've adopted new animating software which calculates animations in real time much like how 3D games do. Each character has a skeleton inside of it, and the artwork you see is comprised of individual sections of art that are assigned meshes and weighted to that skeleton. This provides extreme flexibility as aspects of the character can be changed at run time. I could change the character's skin, elements of her or his armor, make her or his visor glow different colors -- Since this isn't a sequence of prebaked drawings as seen in traditional animation, anything about the model can be changed at any time. Perhaps most importantly, though, the new software is much, much more convenient to use and create characters with. I'd wager that, on average, creating assets for a new animated character is 4 or 5 times faster now than it was the old way, because all I need to do is create a model and then tell it how to move. I don't have to manually create frame after frame after frame of animation the way I did before.
Another new thing you'll notice is that the environment is much more lively than it was in the past, particularly with respect to motion. This is because, using Unity's animation system, anything can be animated easily and with a low performance overhead. The swaying trees are collections of trunks and branches assembled and animated within Unity's editor. Note the trees appear to be three dimensional when the camera moves, and this is because the branches are all placed differently along the Z axis to give that illusion -- Which leads to my other point. Unity is a 3D engine. The level is essentially a virtual 3D room with a virtual camera inside of it. The images are all laid out to give the appearance of a side scrolling game, but it's still 3D, which grants many freedoms I didn't have under the old engine. I can, for example, move the camera in and out at will (and, in fact, in the game now you can click R3 to change the camera distance). Sounds are three dimensional, too, which means it will be easier to determine an audio source just by listening to it. This is something you might take for granted in some games, but it was basically impossible using my old engine. For me, this is an untold delight.
Now that we've discussed some of the presentation and technical differences, I'm going to describe some of the gameplay/control changes I've made now that the design has been completely evaluated and laid out.
I'm presenting this as an overview and an entry point into discussion. I won't be going over the details of every game system in excruciating detail in this update, but if you have questions I'll absolutely answer them and we'll get more into nuts and bolts in future updates.
- Survival horror/pace. One of the goals with the design update was to slow the game down a bit and add some weight to your moment to moment decisions and allow more interesting and meaningful counterplay. To this end, ammo is now more restricted than it was before (The goal is that ammo will feel a bit restrictive early in the game, and be less of an issue later) and there is no longer an auto ammo regeneration mechanic. Because of this, melee moves have been added to the game. They aren't (normally) intended to be a primary form of offense, but more of a "plan B".
- Dashing changes. In the previous game, dashing was way too powerful. You got the move early in the game and it had iframes throughout its whole travel. It made it so easy to avoid damage that my enemy behavior designs became necessarily too limited because the number of ways to really threaten the player were few. Encounters kept feeling the same -- Flood the screen with bullets and fast moving things that leap at the player. That was really the only way to keep it challenging and I grew tired of it. In the new game, dashing will no longer be easy mode. Skill based counterplay now exists in the form of timing based parries. Melee and ranged attacks can all be parried.
- XP changes. Changes in the sense that there is no longer XP -- At least, not in the same sense as before. The character's resources are health, ammo, and spirit. Character progression comes in the form of new weapons, new discrete powers, passive perks, and weapon augments. Incremental boosts come from increasing the upper limit of your resources. I'll discuss all of this in greater detail later.
- Less restrictive map. It's still a Metroidvania, so there are still some power based locks on the map (e.g., you need a particular ability to reach an area) but they're less contrived and less numerous. The map is going to be opened up and populated with "soft locks" and be generally less linear. I'll describe the mechanisms that allow this in more detail in another update.
- Analog movement. You can vary your movement speed by how much you push the analog stick. This is a pretty minor point, but I accidentally implemented it and decided to leave it because it felt nice.
- Analog aiming. You can still aim in 45 degree increments as before, but if you stand still and hold down the LT button you can enter analog aim mode and fine tune your aiming.
- Fall damage. This decision came naturally when considering my priorities -- heavier survival horror feel, and having soft locks on the map (ie, you can survive longer falls if you have more maximum health). If this makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, I just ask you to keep an open mind. It won't be overly intrusive. You can still fall a pretty long way without taking damage. It's mainly to control how well you can survive really long falls.
Thanks for reading, and let me know if you have any thoughts or questions. I understand how long all of this is taking and how it's still going to take longer, but the fact that I really feel a lot better about what I'm doing and that most of my qualitative and technical concerns have fallen away has given me new energy.
As I said above, I'll post a new update around the end/beginning of each month where I'll show and/or tell what I'm up to. I want to turn over a new leaf not only in the development of the game but in my communication with you.
So, yeah! Another one of these suckers in a month. In the interim, I'm always here if you want to talk!