Saturday, December 28, 2013

Hellenica Characters: Nephele!

Welcome to what will hopefully become a recurring series here at the Dragonloft blog!

First off, our goal with the art in Hellenica is to make the world feel grand and full of vitality, while staying true to the comfortable anime stylings of the JRPG genre.

In the interest of failing fast to learn from our mistakes, we wanted to try illustrating one of our most complicated characters first, so we chose Nephele, our adventure-seeking temple mechanic.

In her day-to-day life, Nephele keeps the steam machines in one of Apollo's many temples running smoothly. This puts her at the intersection of steampunk and ancient Greece and makes her a perfect early case study. In terms of personality, she's the exuberant, always-curious, and ever-noble mechanic of the party whose only knowledge of adventure is what she's heard of Odysseus and Perseus. She's the perfect combination of naive and book smart for making things interesting in an adventure.

Personality in mind and a ton of collected reference later, we starting talking with our character artist, Cotton, to see what he could do for us!

In my mind, I pictured Nephele somewhere between Edward from Cowboy Bebop and Rikku from Final Fantasy X. Starting with that image, we went broad with a bunch of ideas. At this point, we weren't focusing on the pose or expression of the character; we were just trying to nail down the details of her styling and accoutrements.

Some things stuck out right away. Tricornes read a little too 'pirate' to me, and Victor felt the midriff ruffles were too Victorian (ha) for our time period. Now, I know what you're thinking: "These people had the ingenuity to harness steam power and create complex, futuristic machines, but they can't envision a ruffle?" If at all possible, we like to stay historically accurate, and we pay special attention to the visual details of our game to ensure that we're reinforcing our unique setting.

That said, there was a lot to love about this exploration. The big, chunky goggles and oversized tool pockets really felt steampunk, along with all the gear work and grommets. As for the ancient Greek side of things, we really gravitated towards the thin sandals and flowing tunics.

After picking and choosing some key elements, Cotton developed this detail sketch. Some new features to note: the vine-like bangle on the wrist, the more obviously Greek sandals, and the added volume and detail in the tunic.

At this point, he mocked up a few poses and moved on to coloring.

We wanted Nephele to look right at home with the steam machines that she is so fond of, so Cotton suggested some warm brass, metallic, and orange tones for her hair and clothing. To add some contrast and visual interest, we chose to color her eyes a bright blue. With that and a few tell-tale grease smudges, she was ready.

I hope you enjoyed the walkthrough. Let me know how these posts may be improved or added upon in the comments below, and I'll try to work your feedback into the next character update!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Twas the first usability test of the season...

At Volition, usability tests were designed to be an impersonal affair. Usability tests were, by design, an impersonal affair. The person running the test did so from a different room, communicating with the testers through a speaker, and observing them via cameras.

The reason for this elaborate setup is that usability tests are supposed to measure what a normal player would do, and it’s hard for developers to keep a poker face while testers are bumbling through their game and “playing it all wrong”. Even if you can fight the urge to explicitly tell the player what he’s doing wrong, you still send signals when you take notes, when you sigh, and when you invariably facepalm.

(Figure 1: Subtle body language from a developer indicating you’re not playing the game as he imagined.)

So when we had a recent usability test with family and friends to get some early feedback on combat, I did my best to stoically observe them.

… for about thirty seconds. Then I began to grimace and cringe as they got lost in the first combat menu, and after one tester died for the third time because he was neglecting to actually attack enemies, I gave up and started helping them through the level.

Working on a game every day, you build up a lot of intuition for how things “should” work. You know how to use all the features because you implemented every detail of their functionality. And while you doubtlessly try to build in hints to guide the player along, you’ll probably dismiss something as “obvious”, only to have players puzzle over it as if it were the Riemann hypothesis.

So as it happened, the most important data we ended up getting from our “combat” usability test was how confusing our interface was.

Here were some of the key take home points:
-The player wasn’t informed he needed to move all his units before being able to select “end turn”
-While the player is required to move all his units before selecting “end turn”, the game doesn’t remind the player to select an attack or ability for them, so it’s easy to simply forget to issue those orders
-The first level had a ruthless difficulty and would become impossible after only 1 or 2 mistakes. Hardly appropriate for someone just learning the game.

There’s more, of course, menus with vague wording and poorly laid out buttons. The good news is that none of these features are particularly hard to fix, and identifying issues like this early means we’ll have more than enough time to iterate on them until we get them right.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Path to Hellenica

As I’ve mentioned in my previous blog post, a big concern for trying to make a 4-hour JRPG is the problem of exposition. It’s not enough to just have a wide world to explore; for a quest to feel appropriately epic, the locations along it need to have history and culture and characters associated with them. But building all that background from scratch tends to chew up a lot of game time, which we don’t have.

We needed a setting a player could get into without the 3-10 hour introductory course many RPGs find mandatory. Yet paradoxically, we also felt our setting needed a unique feel to keep it from getting lost in the JRPG crowd…

The question of what might have been if the Greeks had realized the potential of the Aeolipile has haunted me since I first learned about the early steam engine in 6th grade. But it wasn’t until much later, when an AC2 puzzle led me to google the Antikythera mechanism that I began to wonder if the Greeks couldn’t have somehow combined the two. However, these musings remained dormant until we began struggling to solve the aforementioned exposition problem.

Most people had at least a vague familiarity with ancient Greece—they had heard of Socrates, knew (at least partially) what the Spartans were all about, and wouldn’t be confused by Zeus or his related pantheon. It certainly wasn’t enough of a setting by itself, but it gave us a solid base to begin building a story on.

As an additional benefit, Greek history is an RPG goldmine, replete with interesting characters, feuding cities, a variety of cultures, mystic prophecies, friendships and betrayals, and even great monuments which remain iconic to this day.

And while two millennia of retellings (and history classes) have robbed the setting of some of its vitality and freshness, we bring new energy to the world of ancient Greece by reimagining it in the wake of a steampunk revolution.

Athens will tighten the grip on its empire with ironclad steamships, the Spartans bolster their undefeatable land forces with steam-powered mechs, and the mathematician Pythagoras’ cult is rumored to be building machines with souls. These and many other unique elements provide the dynamic background against which our party of heroes will set off on their epic quest.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

How does that even work?

Now let’s get into some details; if someone had told me two years ago that he/she was working on a JRPG with a target game length of 4 hours, I would have told him/her that sounded impossible (or, if I was feeling particularly polite, “That’s interesting; how do you plan to make that work?”).

It took us a few months to really be able to answer that question, and we came up with the following set of principles:

1. Paraphrasing from a panel at PAX east, the root of a JRPG is the experience of teaming up with a band of rascals and going on an epic quest to save the world. Whatever else we tweak trying to build our RPG, we CANNOT mess this up.

2. Player progression needs to not depend on grinding. We don't want to waste time, so every combat segment should be narratively significant and challenging.

3. Make the side stories part of the main story. RPGs frequently allow the player to put the main narrative on hold to explore some ancillary aspect of the world. This helps the world feel deeper, but also makes a playthrough much longer. We still want to have these subplots, but want to advance the main story while pursuing them, which leads us to the next point...

4. There is no one "main story"; the villain's world-threatening plan is multi-faceted and any number of paths could lead to discovering and stopping it. This will manifest in game by providing the player repeated story choices; every choice will advance the main story, but as mentioned in point 3, it will also develop a side story of the player's choosing.

5. The setting cannot require heavy exposition. We have very limited time to tell our story, so it should be very easy for the player to understand the rules of setting, what’s at stake, and why he/she should care.

Of course, that’s a long way from a game—hardly a blueprint, really, but these principles do serve as beacons that help guide our development process. For example, say we wanted a dramatic betrayal by one of the main character’s friends. We’d ask ourselves the following:

- Does this betrayal mess up the dynamic of a JRPG adventure? (Probably not, it happens from time to time in JRPGs, but if you do it to someone too close to the main character without good setup, you’ll undermine the party camaraderie.)
- Can we pursue the main plot while developing this side story? (Absolutely, the betrayal of an ally is a great way to move the plot forward/create a crisis for the heroes.)
- Can we make a convincing betrayal arc given our time restrictions? (This is much harder, we’ll need time to establish this character as someone you can trust, or the betrayal won’t be as impactful. But if we don’t plant at least a few narrative seeds, the betrayal will feel completely unwarranted. We have precious little space to tell a story, so is it worth devoting that much energy to this subplot?)

We’ll talk a bit more about these principles in future posts, including how our wariness of exposition paradoxically led us a to a setting we’ve never seen before.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Why make this game?

Now that we’re through with introductions, let’s get to the game! Our first project is an attempt to make a JRPG that has tighter pacing and is much shorter (target length = 4 hours!), while still maintaining the epic storytelling and sense of adventure that makes these games great.

So let's start with the most important question: Why did you choose to make this game?

Well, there are a couple different reasons:

1. We didn’t think it would be wise to try to compete in genres AAA studios are chasing. Rather, we wanted to try something different and risky enough that big studios aren't willing to throw money at it.

We've both worked at big studios before, so we know first hand the extensive talent and resources they wield, and also the limitations that come with it. Paying all that talent is expensive, and with game budgets upwards of 40 million dollars, a game needs to sell several million copies to be considered a success. As a result, game publishers (looking to a profit) and game developers (looking to keep their jobs) tend to gravitate towards "safer" game decisions, resulting in a lot of sequels and/or games that are minor iterations on a familiar genre. That's not to say I dislike mainstream games, and I can personally attest that if it wasn't for all the painful lessons (and some of the pre-existing code) of previous games, Saints Row: The Third wouldn't have been anywhere near as good as it was. But this does tend to restrict AAA games to somewhat narrow spaces when there's a whole field of crazy ideas out there that could make great games.

2. We liked JRPGs, but find it harder and harder to make time for them.

Part of this has just been growing up and encountering the rigors of college and eventual careers in game development, with all the glorious crunch time it entails. But even beyond those responsibilities, there are too many games to play. In the past half year, I've played (at least) Path of Exile, The Secret World, Monaco, Persona 4, FF7, SolForge, League of Legends, Civ5:BNW, Saints Row 4, Tomb Raider, Dishonored, Shadowrun Returns, and Risk of Rain. That's already a pretty full schedule, and I still feel like I'm missing out on huge games like Last of Us, Tales of Xillia, and Bioshock Infinite.

It’s gotten to the point where a game that promises “over a hundred hours of gameplay” can almost sound like a curse. This problem is especially pronounced with Japanese-style RPGs, which tend to feature multiple-hour tutorials.

But we really enjoyed JRPGs when we were younger and less overwhelmed, so we begun to wonder if there was any way to take that sort of magic and repackage it in a way that didn't require such a huge time commitment. It would be a risky thing to attempt, since game length is such a staple of the genre, and the idea of telling an epic story in a small time period would at first appear ludicrous. But as per point 1, that's exactly the kind of risk we want to be taking as an indie studio.

3. It’s something we were pretty sure we could build.

Perhaps less dramatic than the first two reasons, but going indie forces a broad set of responsibilities, and while I loved being able to fiddle with the physics of vehicle handling for months on end, I can’t justify that sort of technical experimenting when I’m 50% of our workforce. We analyzed how difficult it would be to make this style of game. And even with our untested innovations, we were confident it was something we could program promptly and do a good job.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Hello and welcome to the Dragonloft blog!

In the posts that follow we’ll be presenting an inside look at indie game development (or at least, our version of it), specifically whatever sorts of interesting problems we’ve encountered that week and (hopefully) how we solved them.

Kurt and I have wanted to work on games since we were first programming together as freshman in high school. Over the next eight years, we honed our skills through various programming competitions and game projects, became roommates, and eventually both graduated with CS degrees from Stanford.

We’d talked about doing a game startup a lot in college, but after graduation, prudence overcame ambition and we decided to get some experience (and savings) first.

I went to Volition Inc. where I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work as a physics programmer, giving me a chance to channel all the beloved mathematical arcana I had acquired to make cars do sweet drifts around corners or crumple under the weight of a tank. On top of that, I found my co-workers both excellent teachers and great people to be around.

Kurt went to Microsoft and worked as what I imagined to be a cross between a programming SWAT team and Winston Wolfe from Pulp Fiction. When a project at MS got derailed, he was the cavalry sent in to fix it. He later decided he’d rather work on a smaller team, and became gameplay lead for the iPad MOBA game, Solstice Arena.

I don’t know that there was an explicit moment when we leveled up and decided we were ready to go indie, but after ~4 years in the industry, we had learned a good deal. We also figured we’d have wives and children to look after in not so long, so we better take our crazy risks before then.

But why take the indie plunge in the first place? As my co-worker at Volition said, “A lot of people want the job you have, and if you’re leaving, it had better not be to make a Geometry Wars clone.”

And that’s not we why we left. We left because for all the intelligent and creative people that populate the AAA world, every idea is by necessity run through the wringer of “but will this appeal to the millions of people that need to buy our game for us to stay employed?” We’ve seen a lot of strange and wonderful ideas rejected for being too risky or too niche. And maybe most of them wouldn’t work, but we think it’s worth quixotically chasing a few, at least for a little while.