Thursday, August 11, 2016

Status update: Playable Demo

Overall there is little visual progress, mainly because I'm pretty much alone on the project once again. And I won't be actively searching for artists (or funding) at this point. I could, but likely we end up as always; artist-X thinks T22 is interesting and has six-hundred hours a day available. He or she "joins", not really knowing what to expect (where is the office? where is the rest of the team? where is the game? where are the tools? where are the documents? where are the goals? where is the compensation?). Concluding: a bit of a bummer. And a few weeks later he or she claims to be "very busy".

Being very busy is the code-word for “screw it, I have better things to do”. School, work, moving into another house, dog died, computer crashed, et cetera. I've heard it all, and many times. After some months and three half-finished assets later, artist either just disappears, or says he has to quit because of circumstances. With two kids and two jobs, I consider myself pretty busy as well. I don’t believe in “too busy”, but I understand you won’t be spending those few free hours on something… vague.

Yeah, managing a team is much more than just telling them what you want, and giving some compliments or feedback time to time. Most people, including myself, want short-term results. A quick dose of fun. Modelling 3D seats that will be used not until two years later -maybe-, isn’t fun. Drawing concepts that never come alive, isn’t fun. Recording sound for non-existing monsters, isn’t fun. So before asking again, I feel the project must be much better prepared, being in a further stage. But how to get there in the first place? Chicken Egg story. Artists will be attracted to projects with potential. But to make a project look promising, you will need artists. Difficult situation.

Made half of the assets here. It doesn't look too well, but at least the viewer understands what's going on here. Besides, making kettles or kitchens instead of programming is nice for a change.

Make it, Work it, Fix it
But what I CAN do, in contrary to what happened before, is making an actual game as much as
possible. It doesn't have to look good, hence this is where artists can shine; feed them ideas
and let them work it out to something beautiful. So what I did last months/year, is just making
the game. You may have read about physics and AI(behaviour trees) in previous posts. If you forget
about graphics for a moment, these are also (if not more important) building-blocks for a game.
Walking a player, climbing stuff, picking up keys, solving a puzzle, showing an inventory, dealing with enemies, et cetera. Plus there needs to be an engine and editor part where we can script/program all that stuff in a robust and comfortable way.

Another thing I did, is making most maps that will be used in the Playable Demo. Corridors,
rooms, that kind of stuff mainly. Note Tower22 is basically one huge map, but made of smaller “sectors”. Being limited in skill, using a half-finished renderer, and having a small asset palette only (most Tower22 objects and textures made before were more industrial oriented, rather than old building / apartments / Soviet crap), these maps are empty and ugly. BUT, at least you can walk through them now, which hopefully gives future artists a much better understanding of the road ahead. And of course, artists can replace dummies and "play" their own stuff now.

I only have to finish a few more maps. Prototype maps, I must add. If an artist thinks corridor-X should look different, or proposes a slight different routing through the playable demo, of course we can change things, although the "Demo Walkthrough" has been written already. This document describes all the events and sequences in the demo (do this, go there, do that, bla bla). So I also started implementing actual game-scripts. For example, one of the very first “puzzles” is to do a couple of things in your apartment, before the front-door unlocks. Dress, prepare food, answer the phone. Sounds easy, but it triggered me to code quite a few additional things to make those puzzles work. An inventory system, a day/night cycle, combining or using items, door mechanics, semi-dynamic lightmaps that allow to turn lights on or off, affecting their indirect light. And a lot of API functions that can be called by LUA scripts or Behaviour Trees to play sequences, set the clock, unlock doors, switch lights, and so on. In short; facilitate engine functionality to make an actual playable game.
Now that is NOT a good looking inventory. Old fashioned really, now that most games have a quick-access ingame HUD spin-dial -whatever to call them-, or no inventory at all. But anyhow, point is that we have *something* that works, and giving the artist food for improvement. 

The bigger picture
Only coded the very first minutes of “GamePlay”, but eventually it will speed up, as the tools, API and library-of-whatever-is-needed grows. But other than describing these in-depth game-details, that Walkthrough Document also states the more overall goals. What is it, that we want to show? If the demo was finished tomorrow, and people would download it, what should they experience?

Of course, a horror game. But again that is easier said than done, as I think the horror-genre is an extreme difficult one. Why? Because it’s not about making a "fun" game. If you aim for a soccer game, the focus should be on soccer, super smooth controls, and realism. If you're making a shooter, the focus is on cool weapons, challenging A.I. and maps that lend themselves for addictive battle. If you're making a horror game, the focus is on scaring people, which contradicts the fun-part usually. Tower22 won't throw you into an arena with weapons. Smiles on your face won't cooperate with uncomfortable feelings. In general, games like Silent Hill or Resident Evil aren't much fun (and no, the later RE titles aren't true horror games in my opinion). But boy, we really want to know what happens next. From one wet pants to another, sadomachochism.

To make things even more difficult, T22 is a slow-suspense game. No buckets of blood in your face, no hideous creatures leaping at you every twelve seconds. The fear-element in this game should be much more subtle. Even though you don’t directly see it, you know things are messed up. Something bad is coming. Sure there will be some jump scares, and clich├ęs, but all in all I try to make an unique setting, avoiding the tricks, scenery and plots you have seen too many times already. In other words, there is no real reference for this game, so I can’t really predict if this game will be fun, scary, or intriguing either.

Dummies for Dummies
So, how to make sure a short demo will accomplish this vibe? We got some issues here. First of all, resources and time are very limited, and even if I could make anything, you don’t pull out the big-guns for a (teaser)demo yet. It starts gentle. Second, having these maps modelled and loaded into the game now, it's still a far cry from anything scary. What I see, is mainly a buggy, clumsy, unfinished world. Plus I had those maps in mind for quite some years now, so they don't come as a surprise either. Yes, more than most puzzle or action games, horror games rely a lot on good sound and graphics.

And notice "good graphics" doesn't necessarily mean next-gen photo-realistic super graphics. But the contents have to consistently follow a certain style. Having re-programmed the whole engine, with a lot of features still disabled, I feel my re-newed rooms still miss that "personal touch" my previous results had. That engine wasn't perfect, but being a bit dark, blurry and noisy, rooms certainly had a certain vibe, in contrary to the cold fabricated renders I have now. But hey, let's not drift too far away into graphics again. My point was that I'm trying to setup an actual game now, following the locations and puzzles/scripts/events the documents describe.

Again I find this pretty hard though. One of the very first things that will happen, is you hearing an old phone ringing, and picking it up. But obviously pretty much all resources for even such a simple
event are still lacking. I actually do have a phone model, but no table or furniture to put it on. No ring-ring sound, no pickup animation, and definitely not a weird voice that speaks over the phone.
Since I can't wait for artists to make all that stuff (because I practically have none), my answer
should be in "dummies". Just make a simple ugly table. Pick up the mic and say "ring. ring.". Use
Microsoft Sam or deform your own voice for the conversation that follows. Of course it sucks, but the artist now knows exactly what to do, and it functions as a temporary place-holder so we can proceed with the next event.
So there you have your dummy telephone on a dummy table in a dummy room, accompanied by "Hints" that can show additional info, pictures, internet-links.

Only little problem is that I hate making ugly stuff or hearing my own voice. I'll quickly end-up putting way too much energy into trying doing it good (but probably with mediocre success only). So instead of making a boring desk object, I'd rather spend my energy on programming something else... like a day/night cycle skybox + cascaded shadowmaps for the sun like I did few weeks ago. Well, that's something I have to learn, and making a list of "stuff to finish" with relative simple jobs will probably help me doing it, no matter how silly or boring.

Too bad this drives me even further away from a scary game though. Picking up a fake phone and hearing Microsoft Sam isn't scary, it's ashaming. Of course an artists will polish it one day, hopefully, but with that thought still in the back of your mind, you just can't test and judge your own horror game. Somebody else needs to do that ;) 

Lost Fantasies
I also noticed making horror-scenario's requires constant training. As I'm getting older, I play less
games, and my fantasies are becoming more mature (read more boring). As a kid, your brain flies through space, candyland, naked girls, war-torn cities, silly jokes, hellish creations, castles and drunk nights. Or even better, a non-logical combination of all of that. As an adult, your brain flies through taxes, work, annoyances about the neighbours, making your kids eat broccoli, and how the garden should be restyled. I hate to say it, but creativity slowly drains away, and putting your mind 200% into an horrific Soviet style skyscraper gets more difficult. I should be reading more books, movies and play more games again (but Silent Hill with an 8 year old daughter...). But also, I should make time to fantasize again. Sounds childish, but really. I shouldn't have swapped my bicycle for a car few years ago, because those 60 minutes each day were great for drifting away into a T22 scenario or whatever fantasy, while cycling to work.

So we have a kitchen here. Next step; make it look better. Final step -and the real challenge; make it contribute to a terrifying horror atmosphere one way or another.

Well anyhow, that's my status update. So basically I'm making a simplistic, dummy variant of the
playable demo, and when I feel its "ready enough", I'll ask artists to replace those dummies with
cool stuff. And being a bit more finished programming-wise by then, I hopefully have more time to
direct them. Doing on-request engine features, improve the tools, review their work, compensate with a bit of money, ensuring the goals remain clear, et cetera. Not that artists wouldn’t be welcome today, but I just want to make sure I do a better job keeping them in, before asking again.

Final stage -when the demo is "beautified" and functional- is to poke some famous Youtube dude(s), to walk through it. A good way to reach far more people. If people like it and want to see more, that would be an appropriate time to launch a Kickstarter campaign. I could do the same now as well, but with only a few thousand people knowing about this project... Timing and patience, my friends.