Great Scott! Building a Better Mouse Trap
For this update we will demonstrate the process for generating deck plans and away missions. We also recently finished an important milestone and will cover the main points from it. The update also includes a selection of Arkwright ships since we recently did a polish pass on their textures.
For our Gamescom demo we assembled two large decks for the heavy cruiser. This process was a manual and time consuming process. The Gamescom demo took at least six hours for each deck, and that did not include changes that had to be made as a result of playtesting. Even minor layout changes took lots of time since many small art assets had to be repositioned. The snap-to-grid function does not work perfectly for all object types which created gaps and imprecise collision (which again generated pathfinding bugs).
Therefore we decided to implement a new and faster process. This process is inspired by how we already handle away missions where level designers only need to focus on gameplay and pure level design. This required that we both rework our existing art assets and also develop a new tool, the deck designer.
Below is a mockup that shows how the art assets would need to be reorganized into a tiled structure that is compatible with the deck designer. Notice the individual tiles of varying sizes along the bottom and then also the vertical corridor on the left part of the image where the tiles have been used to decorate the floor in a non-repetitive pattern. Later in this update we show examples from inside Unity3D for the Grand Fleet, Black Eagle and Osmani faction tilesets.
Now we mentioned that a new tool, the deck designer, was required to facilitate the new process. The deck designer is used to quickly put together a level layout. Once the level layout is ready we can automatically assemble all art assets correctly. This reduces the likelihood of bugs (due to placement and collision) and if the designer makes changes to the level layout then he can just press a button and the art assets are automatically updated to accommodate these changes. In fact, the new process takes less than one hour and the designer can even do multiple layout changes during that time.
In the video below you can see the new deck designer in action. We have shifted the focus over from arranging lots of small objects to deciding where to place objects that affect gameplay. By focusing deck creation on rooms and doors placement the designer’s perspective is firmly placed on level flow. The various helper tools like the green level constrainer and the “blocker box” that is used to place inaccessible areas, can all be scaled as the designer sees fit. The second part of the video covers the away mission design process which also served as inspiration for the new deck designer.
The deck designer is not yet finished but currently in such a state that the designers can work with it and we are adding features like automatic lighting, support for blast doors, as well as several tweaks and optimizations. Also, the deck designer will integrate with another tool called the ship designer which is where the link between the exterior ship model and the interior decks are made (in addition to other stats like weapon hardpoints).
On the away mission side all the rudimentary systems are in place. Following the same process as the gameplay area definition (black/white texture) the designer is able to specify where to place objects that impact gameplay and pathfinding, like cover objects. Backdrop assets which are outside the gameplay area (in the black part of the texture) can either be defined by the designer or generated through a random seed function (or both).
As for the gradient and height-map these can either use the biome default or the designer can specify an alternative map to use. This gives the designers the flexibility to create both handcrafted and more procedurally generated levels. It means we have time to craft additional level layouts and each level layout can be play-tested much faster.
Moving on, last week we completed an important milestone review with Eurovideo. We reviewed the new process for building decks as well as three other areas: the adventure mode, content tools and product backlog planning. We will cover each of these in turn.
The most important focus with adventure mode for this milestone was to integrate the first version of the new artificial intelligence from Apex Game Tools. We used a prototype of the Apex Utility AI for the Gamescom demo to manage the complex squad tactics of the boarding commandos. This enabled us to have goal-based AI that could handle the military command structure of multiple squads systematically clearing the enemy spaceships, in the way trained commandos would do this. All the while responding to dynamic changes to the game as the boarding combat progressed. This allowed us to test some really cool features of The Mandate when combined with the powerful, state-of-the-art AI from Apex Game Tools.
Specifically for the adventure mode the AI will work a bit differently as there are two elements that together make up a faction: the faction leader (and sub-faction leaders) and the Great Captains. If we use chess as an analogy then the faction leader is the person that is strategizing and moving pieces on the board. The Great Captains are the pawns and officers who reside on the board and are part of the game world.
The faction leaders are static throughout the game and firmly rooted in lore. They are either one of the characters from the lore document or a lieutenant/envoy who is acting on behalf of her/his master(s).The faction leaders have their own agenda which affects the strategy they pursue and help shape the story and the context of the game.
The Great Captains are a mix of hand-crafted and dynamically generated NPC characters. They have the same stats as the player character and play by the same rules as the player character. They roam the adventure mode and can swear allegiance to one of the factions and work for them to grow in status, power and wealth.
We want the factions and Great Captains to feel alive, and provide the right mood for The Mandate in line with the great storylines and the deep lore. To achieve this each faction is being run by an advanced Utility AI that has its own aims or agenda which is related to that faction’s backstory and lore. On that basis, the AI will define goals that enables it to achieve those aims, based on the actual state of the game, past events etc. The AI has to balance the desire for conquest with the desire to build strength and maintain alliances with other powerful factions. The AI thinks long-term, such as how to attract Great Captains to join their faction.The AI must also maintain the faction’s economy by exploration, conquest and trade while avoiding over-expanding their territory and falling prey to rival factions.
The goals of each faction spills down to the Great Captains in their hire, who will roam the galaxy as renaissance princes carving out their bases of power and expanding their domains as allegiances change and battles for influence and domination unfold. They must build their reputations in great campaigns and vie for power through treacherous schemes and backstabbing their competitors in a Machiavellian fashion when needed.
Factions and Great Captains employ some of the latest technologies in artificial intelligence for games. Both make long-term plans for conquest. Both have long-term memory (and will never forget treason...). Furthermore, they can make decisions using incomplete information and plot how to destroy their enemies or form alliances to expand their influence across multiple star systems.
The ultimate goal with our artificial intelligence is to make each faction feel and play differently. As scheming puppet masters they will recruit Great Captains to their cause. The player is one of these Great Captains and will compete with, ally and challenge these in order to carve out a place for himself.
On the visual side the adventure mode currently looks unfinished and more like a test scene since our focus is on functionality and features. The art team is busy working on adventure mode assets like starships, engine trails, stellar objects etc.
Once the game code and AI code is properly integrated we can then connect the art assets and share video footage with you guys. So first we build the game systems that create a fun and immersive experience which you will actually enjoy and then afterwards we make it look pretty.
Next up we reviewed with Eurovideo the progress on content tools implementation. These are the tools that we are using to build the content for The Mandate. Both the deck designer and away mission generator are part of these tools.
In the overview below you will find a breakdown of the progress of each individual tool as well as important features associated with or required by each tool. We measured progress across four milestones: MS1, MS2, MS3 and MS4.
As you can see from the columns “MS1” and “MS2” we were on track according to our roadmap. However, for “MS3” we did not reach our goal of 90% completion. The reasons for this was that we had a delay in hiring programmers and we also had to put much more focus on the Gamescom Demo. We agreed with Eurovideo to revisit the tools status again for “MS4”. The “MS4” milestone review was conducted last week and approved.
So what does it take to get to 100% tool completion? Well out of the remaining tasks the most important one is probably the process for designing / constructing space combat maps. Currently we are investigating how much of the code from away missions we can reuse directly. However, for space combat we also want the ability to make the map use stellar objects that are present in adventure mode inside the space combat map. That being said we do expect to make tweaks and fixes to the content tools all the way until release.
On the project planning side we are doing what is called product backlog planning. This entails reviewing all roadmaps to get an overview of the various features we still need to implement. For each feature we do rough estimates to build up an understanding of how much work (ideal man days) is left. To help us build the product backlog we have enlisted the aid of an external project manager who has a lot of expertise with product backlog planning. He is very passionate about our game concept and is helping us identify which features to prioritize in order to ensure we deliver on the Kickstarter concept.
For this milestone we presented the first version of the product backlog and discussed the process with Eurovideo. The next step now is to measure how quickly the team implements new features and then compare this data with the time estimates for the features in the product backlog. Once the product backlog is finalized and more accurate estimates are available, we can create a more final product backlog. When we have this we can give you a better idea about when we expect to have the Alpha and Beta candidates as well as estimated release date for the final game.
Beyond the formal milestone review we also communicated with Eurovideo about adding an official community manager to the project since we are very busy developing the game and this means it can take a long time for us to respond to all the ideas, questions and helpful input from the community.
The next Kickstarter update will focus on the updated design document for adventure mode. We will explain our layered, bottom-up approach and discuss how each layer adds to the final game experience.
Your friends at Perihelion Interactive