Lasers. Enough Said.

Rich Bio Pics

Rich Knieriem, Lead Developer


 

This week’s entry is about lasers.  That’s right, lasers.  Why? Because SPOILER ALERT, lasers are in our game…and why wouldn’t they be?  Sci-Fi without lasers is like sex without the other person.  It just isn’t the same.  Also it’s a lot quicker, but that’s not really relevant to this analogy.  If our little sci-fi game is ever going to make it big, it’ll need its very own lasers.

Movies and video games have featured laser beams, laser blasters, and — well actually, maybe there’s really only those two types of lasers to begin with: the spitting, rapid-fire blasters that go “PEW PEW!” and the constant beam of energy that goes “NERRRRRRRRRRRRRR”.  For my first attempt at lasers in Armour on the Wastes, I opted to implement the “PEW PEW!” blaster-type laser.

Why you ask?

Because! This basically turned the laser into just green fucking bullets, and also because I’m lazy as fuck.  However, the lead designer was not happy with this choice, claiming that our “laser” was just a re-skinned machine gun.  Not willing to argue my point, I decided to try his style out and implement the “constant beam” type laser into our game.

This is the story of that hell.

In programming, there are two types of developers: those that refuse to use other people’s code, and those with jobs.  If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m the latter.  So before attempting to make my own lasers, I first searched the internet for a helpful guru who could do my work for me.

After a few beers I came across a tutorial showing how to easily do hit scan lasers – in other words, how to make a laser that would emit from a source gun and instantly hit a wall or target without any projectile travel time.

“PERFECT,” I thought to myself, tempting fate.  “Let’s toss this into the engine and see what happens.”   When the green laser shot out of my tank and connected with the wall instantaneously, I was ecstatic.  “IT WORKS! I’m amazing…wait…what?…60%?!”  Of course, there was a downside to the code I had retrieved from the depths of the internet.  The mystery code had managed to jump my processor from 6% to 60% usage.  With all of the other content we need to implement into the game, this kind of resource usage was obviously unfeasible.  So with the easy option out of the picture, I was now forced to design my own laser logic.

After a few afternoons of work, I managed to get my new laser system working.  It functioned similarly to the solution I had found online, but didn’t require as many constant checks on where the laser was supposed to be or what it was supposed to hit, saving a boatload of processor power.  Better yet, I ended up adding a few new features that help set Armour on the Wastes apart.

Performance was great, the new laser looked amazing, and most importantly it was also fun to use, but I still had one problem.  The laser only worked for the player. For the full game, computer driven players would also need to be able to shoot laser weapons.  I figured, “how hard could that be?”  “Let’s just give all of the computer tanks lasers and see what happens.”

There are no words for what took place next on my screen…it haunts me to this day. Chaos and mayhem don’t even begin to describe the horror. It was many days before the lasers were up to our exacting standards.*  After all this, I’m confident that people can now use lasers in AOTW without breaking the game or breaking their spirits, which is a definite plus.

The dark days of the Laser Project ™ © ® may now be behind us, but we must never forget what kind of struggle it took to get us to where our game is at today.  In truth, the struggle was only about a week, bust still…it was mildly annoying.  Now I just have to finish the AI…

* Defined by “meh…looks good enough for now.”

State of the Union

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I’m writing this week’s post over 1000 miles away from my normal coffee shops and bus routes.

Never fear, I haven’t been exiled by the team. I’m just on vacation, traveling through the awesome national parks of the Southwestern United States. Currently, I’m working on this post a couple hundred yards from the south rim of the Grand Canyon, which incidentally reminds me of some of the more austere terrains from planets that Austin has written into AOTW.

I’ve heard that one is supposed to step back and take stock of one’s life on vacations. As AOTW is increasingly becoming a big part of my life, I wanted to take this week’s post to look at our progress so far, as well as our upcoming goals.

We’ve been officially working on Armour On The Wastes for almost 6 months now, and we have some great progress to show for it (beyond the team bonding and IPA consumption). On the business side, we’ve completed 12 blog posts, cultivated a small but growing social media following, filed for a real life LLC, and have an artist starting with us very soon. Then, on the development side, we’ve finished a tech demo with most of the basic gameplay concepts implemented, developed an AI system that is of at least marginal intelligence, and survived one instance of computer hardware failure. Finally, on the story and design side, we have a huge backstory written out with incidental details for dozens of planets and important characters, as well as the majority of our levels sketched out and ready to go plot-wise.

It almost doesn’t seem right to summarize the work everyone has done in this way. After all, I don’t think this brief summary can even come close to capturing all of the work that has gone into this process so far.  Nonetheless, it is nice to see it written for all to see.

That said, what we’ve done so far undoubtedly pales in comparison to the work that still needs to be done. On the story and design side, we have an intricate branching storyline script to write, and extensive collaboration required with our new artist in order to get him up to speed. On the development side we have an “advanced” feature list that’s several pages long, and we still have to complete repairs on Richard’s computer so that his girlfriend can have her laptop back. On the business side, we have to develop a more comprehensive marketing plan, up the quality of the blog by incorporating art, get any coverage we can from indie media outlets, and figure out exactly what tax and regulatory requirements come along with that cool LLC paperwork.

Needless to say, this is a lot of work, especially when you consider that almost every task I’ve listed consists of like 50 subtasks.

As I’ve touched on in previous posts, this amount of work can be overwhelming, and I’ve thought about this project indirectly across my vacation over the last few days. Looking at all the beautiful landscapes in places like the Grand Canyon or Arches National Park, I am awestruck both by the scale and longevity of these places. They were formed hundreds of millions of years before humans even existed, and they will likely be around millions of years after I’m gone. On this scale, my lifespan seems absolutely miniscule, which is good and bad. On the one hand, this realization is humbling and it makes me appreciate every moment I have. On the other hand, it makes me terribly afraid of wasting any time in my life. With so few years available to me, I have this sense that I don’t want to lose time by doing things that I’m not meant to do or that could fail.

AOTW does not feel like one of those things — regardless of how much or how little time I have left in this world, I don’t regret one minute of the time that I’ve spent on this game project. I can honestly say that every minute so far has been worth it.

I can’t promise to still be writing this blog in a million years, but I do look forward to writing another team “State of the Union” address with more exciting updates in a few months!

-Mike

 

Choices and Consequences

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Austin Gunsauley, Lead Design/Story


Scene: Los Angeles, 2071.   The police hover-car flies overhead, sirens blazing, as you stare down the sights of your pistol at a robotic saber-toothed tiger with a large gold monocle on its left eye. Watching your every motion, the tiger suddenly speaks with an entirely inappropriate and somewhat squeaky British accent. You are able to make out the phrase, “Why hello there, old chap!” You flip the safety off and a single bead of sweat trickles down your forehead from underneath your fedora.

If you take the shot, you’ll eliminate this genteel feline menace forever.   But you also might hit that family of eight behind your archnemesis.

What do you do?
>Shoot Tiger (+3 Good Guy Cards, unlock Holy Healing)
>Hold Fire (+3 Demon Hearts, unlock Orphan Grenade)
>Barter for Monocle (+$100, unlock Monocle)

The above situation is pretty much how I would NOT like to implement the decision-making and choice system in our game, Armour on the Wastes.

Building off of Mike’s post last week about The Stanley Parable, today we will look at how I am trying to avoid this type of player choice design and also create a meaningful sense of player agency throughout our evolving storyline.

Part I: Building a better choice

Our detective above finds himself in a fairly ridiculous quandary, but it’s not necessarily a very interesting one from a game design perspective, or even that of the player. Once you see past the immediate scene, you’ll notice that the player’s potential choices are not weighted on morality alone.   Indeed, there are rewards associated with these decisions, rewards that “gamify” the experience and reduce an interesting moral ambiguity into a mere system of statistics.

Instead of making a decision based off of her own sense of right and wrong, the player is instead choosing the reward she thinks will benefit her the most. Sometimes these choices are “role-playing” oriented – such choices often indicate to the player that her character will become more “good” or more “evil”, thereby altering the game’s ending and offering the player the reward of “agency”. But choices can also be made on the basis of tangible gameplay rewards, such as the acquisition of a demonic orphan-powered hand grenade that renders most of the game’s enemies ineffective, or of a nice shiny monocle that does nothing beyond making the character look pretentious and slightly cooler. Whatever the nature of the reward, the choice-making experience is diluted by making the rewards for each choice visible to the player.

Consider an alternate proposal.   What if, as Becky Chambers recently suggested, we eliminated the visual element of video game morality entirely from the situation? What if the choice was no longer a system of rewards, and instead the options simply became: Shoot Tiger, Hold Fire and Barter for Monocle?

Well, that gets a lot more interesting doesn’t it?   Now it’s no longer clear what the consequences of the player’s decisions will be. Maybe if the player shoots the tiger, she will miss and take out the family – heroism transformed into uncertainty by the mere removal of a morality marker. Maybe if that same player holds fire, it is not necessarily a decision of apathy, of profitability or of misguided video game “evil”, but simply a desire to avoid casualties. And maybe if she barters for the monocle, she and the tiger become best friends and the game will change from a suspense/thriller episode into a bad buddy cop movie.

The point is that removing the visible rewards and the morality markers (+500 good! -500 evil!) suddenly make a very clear cut decision a much more thoughtful and, I would argue, meaningful experience.   The choice is no longer about “gaming the game” and trying to attain some optimal situation for your character.   Instead, the choice is about what you would do in that situation, and what you think the right decision to make is.

In my own work as writer and lead designer for Armour on the Wastes, I have been coming up with strategies to try and include choices that matter in this way.   Our narrative has many branching plot points; but how to get to those plot points, and what impact a player’s decisions have on the world, will not always be evident. I refuse to put in a clear morality system a la Bioware simply because I do not want our players to be saints or sinners.   I want them to be human.   I would like them to focus on their actions, and on the story, and on the implications of what they are doing – not on filling up a tiny little colored bar that tells them what a good (or bad) person they are.

Part II: Narrative Economy and the Utility of a Branching Storyline

You’re in for a twofer today, folks. I stumbled across this article by Brendan Vance within the last week after reading his review of the excellent Glitchhikers and I found his points on “narrative economy” to be fascinating.

Especially since I am basically doing everything wrong that I can do wrong, according to that article.

If you can’t be bothered to read it, Brendan argues that modern gaming’s focus on multiple story “branches” and on a constant flow of new characters is not a very effective or “economical” way to tell a video game story. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that this style of design has the opposite effect, making it difficult for the player to connect to the plotline or the characters and requiring the game developer to include artificial rewards (such as we discussed earlier) to motivate the player to play farther. Brendan suggests that a more effective way to create choices in video games is to relate them to well-established characters that the player interacts with often and to set up the meaning of those choices well in advance.

Now, if you’re following me so far, I have admittedly avoided one pitfall of Brendan’s, the “proverbial baby save/puppy kick” dilemma of modern game choices– by making the morality system invisible and the reward system unclear to the player.   However, as far as the actual structure of the plot goes, I appear to be right in his line of fire.   Armour on the Wastes, with its multiple and mutually exclusive story branches, and its huge and diverse cast of characters, appears to be throwing “narrative economy” directly into the trash can. And then maybe throwing the trash can into an incinerator. And then nuking the incinerator. From orbit.

Narrative economy, however, is not something that I think is always strictly necessary. For instance, if you are building more of a Stand on Zanzibar or a Deus-Ex type world, where the central theme of the story is not explicit but rather spilled out over many pages or missions through intense world-building and the introduction of many one-off characters, then the concept of narrative economy goes out the window a bit.

I’m not arguing for the introduction and use of disposable characters to illustrate ideological points or key choices as Brendan mentions briefly in his article; but I do feel that having minor, ancillary characters outside of the main plot helps build the feeling of a real and breathing world.   The real key to keeping things “economical” when taking this approach to game storytelling is to make sure that the most story-relevant characters are also the most game-relevant characters. On this point, Brendan and I do agree.

If the whole story centers on a cyber-tiger eating detectives in downtown LA, for instance, then you want to have the tiger as a reoccurring presence in the story, and also have the detectives in question introduced very early in the same manner. That way, the dramatic choice to kill the tiger or call an ambulance for Sergeant Morales actually matters – because you actually know both individuals and have a stake in their fates, as opposed to introducing Morales about two minutes before his death. And if there is no apparent morality system, the choice stands as a far more powerful encounter because the implications of your decision are not clear.

As for story branching – I agree with Brendan that this can be a way to trick the player into caring about decisions.   However, I think that in the case of Armour on the Wastes, the hidden nature of our choice system will focus attention onto the player’s relationships with characters and factions, where it belongs – rather than on the implications of the branching plotline decisions.

Story branching may even enhance our experience. Two players can come together and talk about our game only to find that the story had taken completely different paths for both of them, restructuring itself around each player’s choice of ideology and allegiance.   In that regard, I think we’ll have an interesting meta level of storytelling going on – what will your choices have said about you, and how do they compare to others? Perhaps this is what Telltale was thinking when they implemented the morality comparison checklist at the end of their Walking Dead episodes, the itemized list of decisions that lets you know how many people made the same decisions you made across the story.

In any case, there are obviously a lot of conscious decisions that must be made when you are talking about adding player choice into a video game.   I am pretty confident that I am making the right ones, but also interested to see how it plays out in the end.

For the record, I’d barter for the monocle.

 

 

 

The End is Never the End

This week was supposed to be about lasers. Unfortunately, due to technical problems, this week will no longer be about lasers. No, I didn’t break my laser cannon – that still works fine. But, Rich had been planning to write about the challenges of making lasers work with the Construct 2 game engine until his computer completely broke down this week. Words cannot describe the pain a true developer feels when his computer goes down unexpectedly. So, perhaps a highly scientific graph is in order:

 

rich graph

 

As you can see, things escalated quickly. So, in an effort to give Rich some emotional space to work things out with his hard drive, Austin and I brainstormed some new ideas. We decided to focus this week’s post on someone else’s game and how that game is informing and inspiring our efforts with AOTW. There are plenty of great sci-fi inspirations out there, but we wanted to look at something that has been very influential in the indie community at large and that also inspires us in challenging and indirect ways, so we decided to risk an existential crisis and play the Stanley Parable.

If you haven’t played this game, I would actually advise at least playing the demo before reading too much about it. I played it for the first time in preparation for writing this post, and it was definitely a mind bending experience. Essentially, your character is a generic office worker, who one day looks up and realizes everyone in his office is gone. He sets off to find his co-workers, and finds himself being implored to follow a certain set of instructions by a seemingly omniscient narrator. From there, almost anything can happen, depending on whether you follow the instructions or not. I played through three of the possible sixteen endings and then discussed my confused feelings about the game with Austin.

I found the “Confusion Ending,” the “Following Orders Ending,” and the “All a Dream Ending” in that order.

On my first play through, my tepidly rebellious streak broke through and I decided to bravely disobey the narrator when he told me to take the door on the left. After a series of subsequent misadventures, I eventually found myself being led by a very literal “adventure line” to a room that had all of the steps in my pre-scripted path listed on the wall.

On my second play through, my conventional tendencies broke through and I found myself feeling compelled to follow the narrator’s instructions to the letter. I just had to see what would happen if I followed the path the game had seemingly defined for me. This led to me “escaping” from the building I was in – an ostensibly happy ending considering the dreary state of affairs inside the building.

On my third play through, my compulsive streak broke through and I returned to a stairwell that I had passed the previous time. In this stairwell, you can go either up or down. I had gone up in the second play through, and the fact that I had gone up but not down had left me feeling un-balanced. To satisfy my perfectionist tendencies, I took the downward path on this play through. This ultimately led to the “All a Dream” ending which involves gripping madness, the realization that my character had been hallucinating the whole time, and the realization that I was now dead – arguably a very unhappy ending by most reasonable standards.

So, Stanley’s twisted office building seems terribly far removed from the interstellar tank combat that is AOTW. However, as I discussed Stanley’s fate with Austin and got his take on it, I realized that the Stanley Parable actually raises a lot of questions that are relevant to our game. Much has been written about what Stanley Parable says about player agency and the nature of choice in video games. I’m not sure that our conclusions are wildly different than anything that’s been said already, but trying to apply these thoughts to our own game is an interesting exercise. Furthermore, I think each of the endings I found has a unique message to impart to us.

The Following Orders ending is perhaps the most straightforward to understand. In this play through, I followed the pre-ordained narrative and was quite literally rewarded with an escape from reality at the end of the game when my character walks out of his office building into an idyllic countryside life. As the narrator says, “It was not knowledge or even power that he had been seeking, but happiness.” I think that the “escapism” label is a common refrain that people use when criticizing people for spending time playing video games. I don’t actually think escapism is absolutely bad – sometimes you just need to unwind at the end of the day and there should be a place for that in game development. However, we want AOTW to be more than pursuing happiness as an escape. At some level we want people to seek knowledge by exploring off the path and by finding reasons to make their own decisions in our branching story line.

Of course, this brings up the oft-debated question – is there such thing as true choice in a video game? After all, if the developer has pre-determined all of the possible choices, is the player just a mouse in a maze? This is where the Confusion ending comes into play. In this scenario, nothing you do ultimately matters, even when you “make your own decisions.” Even when you feel like you’ve escaped the “adventure line,” it breaks back into the room and eerily stays with you no matter where you are. To make matters worse, at the end you see that your rebellious choices were part of the plan from the very beginning. I found the implications of this scenario to be rather disturbing. Fortunately, Austin did have some good perspective that calmed my nerves a bit (good thing he’s the story writer).

In short– his take is that, yes, decisions within a game can matter because the player can project his or her own reasons for making the decision into the game, even in a limited context. This projection allows the player to extract his or her own meaning because even though the available choices and subsequent paths were pre-determined, the player made that choice for a reason. For example, in AOTW you might choose to help one mercenary tank faction or another because you believe that decision will lead to less overall harm to a planet’s citizens. Hopefully, at least in a small way, this will encourage players to seek knowledge by better knowing their motivations and by extension better knowing themselves. Furthermore, from my perspective, there are many art forms in which you have even less decision making capability – take literature or movies for example – but we don’t claim that it is impossible to learn anything because of this. Rather, you extract meaning by projecting a piece of yourself into that work of art and wrestling with how that makes you feel about the context of your own life. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves by getting too far outside the context of the game, but both in the branching and the more rigid parts of our game, we are certainly striving to do more than have a “Confusion” ending.

The All a Dream ending was the hardest for me to understand. I’m still grappling with it but I’ve got a few ideas. At least for me, this ending reminds me of how we sometimes use games to normalize ourselves, as Mariella (the “real life” character who spots the hallucinating Stanley) uses him to normalize her own life. We give ourselves an obviously fictional escape, and that normalizes our non-game life. Everything in the game is so fictional that, in contrast, it’s easier to believe that everything in your own life is concrete and as it should be. If you spend 3 hours a day, flying through space blasting aliens with triple barrel laser cannons, the fact that you are spending 8 hours of your day in a job that may not be what you’re meant to do doesn’t seem so obvious. Again, this is a fine line to negotiate, but we want AOTW to be a game that pushes you to think in a way that is consistent with real life critical thinking. We want it to sharpen a player’s moral and intellectual awareness, not anesthetize them. This is especially important to us considering that we are making a war game. While we’re certainly not above having some fun blasting fictional enemies with tanks, we want the player to be reminded that in essence, war is hell and often involves choosing the lesser of two evils. We hope to do this both with the choices the player is presented with, and with the tone that is imparted through atmosphere and character dialogue.

It brings up some heavy topics, but this unexpected experience of Stanley Parable was definitely inspirational for me. I’m glad that I had this unexpected opportunity to reflect more deeply on the nature of what we’re striving to make. We still have a long road ahead of us just to complete a game, let alone a thought provoking game. But, as the Stanley Parable constantly reminds you, “the end is never the end.” The journey should always matter.