Saturday, March 29, 2014

Hellenica Characters: Nyx!

Yay! New character art update!

This time around I'm going to talk about the development of Nyx, one of Hellenica's more mysterious characters. Your party may come across her, if she lets you.

For Nyx, we really wanted to create a medieval rogue/assassin vibe, while still sticking to clothing and accoutrements true to the ancient Greek setting. It was a pretty tall order, but we got in touch with the talented Zetallis who saved the day. (You can check out more of her work here!)

Here's the initial detail sketch:

I was really excited about the draped cloth on the arms and legs, but we decided they were a bit too impractical for Nyx. Ultimately, we decided to go after something a little more functional. Additionally, we were concerned that the hands and feet pushed things too far towards an eastern ninja look, so we asked Zetallis to do another variation on those parts as well. Here's the second sketch!

Happy with how this turned out, we wanted to add some distinguishing feature that would add a little more flavor and potentially hint at some of her past. In terms of direction, we hoped Zetallis might draw inspiration from Nyx's name, which is shared with the Greek personification of night. Additionally, Nyx's character has a reputation for having unerring instincts, so perhaps a Greek symbol of Apollo or luck would be appropriate. Here's what Zetallis came up with:

Next, we tackled Nyx's colors. Given her ties with night and stealth, we were drawn towards a much darker look than we've previously gone after. We ended up moving forward with the rightmost variation, with some slight alterations.

For the pose, we wanted to sell Nyx's 'no nonsense' nature. It had to be intimidating. On top of that, her facial expression needed to say 'you do NOT want to mess with me'. What do you think?

At this point, most of the decisions had been made, and it was just up to Zetallis to work on the final coloring. She did a great job, and we're incredibly pleased with the results!

If you'd like more of Hellenica's character art, please check out our development posts on Diona and Nephele!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Airship at the Center of the (story) Maelstrom (part 2)

When we last left our heroes, we were trying to hammer a coherent story out of several divergent narrative threads. While each social hub has its own unique requirements, here’s the general approach we take.

1. Write custom intros to try to get all story threads to a sort of general starting point before going too deep into the social hub’s narrative. 
Handle any necessary character introductions and transitions from the previous paths or story points. It’s usually not possible (or desirable) to completely homogenize the story, but making an effort to establish common ground makes writing the rest of the hub easier.  Here are some of the dangling threads that needed to be cleaned up before starting the airship proper:
-Scylax may or may not already be traveling with the party. We need to get him introduced and get the party up to speed.
-The party may already have been looking for the Airship’s captain, or he may have gone unmentioned in the story so far. He needs an introduction and some brief background.
-Find an excuse for the NPC Nyx to leave the party if she’s present. It’s not impossible to conditionally write dialogue as if another character were present, but only roughly 14% of incoming paths feature her, so we decided it wasn’t worth complicating dialogue further.

2. From the general narrative bases established in 1, write the different story vignettes for the social hub. 
This should include both critical path dialogue that furthers the story and additional flavor details and background information. Odds are the vignettes won’t fit perfectly with all the preceding paths, but we’ll worry about that later. For the time being, the focus is on generating compelling dialogue.

3. Revise dialogue with an eye towards the preceding branches. 
Now that we’ve got a bunch of interesting conversations, it’s time to make sure they’ll all flow neatly into whatever story the player has taken. We read through the different dialogue paths, and if the flow ever feels off or the characters’ focus seems schizophrenic, we add an alternative set of lines. As an example, after it’s brought up that Anaxagoras was afraid for his life, Nephele responds with one of the following (depending on previous story threads)
Nephele: Oh, did you find out about the price on your head?
Nephele: Did you think it was too dangerous to stay in Sparta—with the civil war and all?
Nephele: What? Was it because of the luddites?

4. Add additional sections as needed.
Sometimes, it’s just impossible to make a vignette fit a certain set of circumstances leading into it. In that case we can just disable the dialogue, or if it’s plot essential, write a new vignette that connects the specific story threads.

Of course, writing is a process, and editing remains ongoing as we show our work to editors and early playtesters. However, this methodology has done a good job of giving us solid drafts that meet our intricate story requirements.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Airship at the Center of the (story) Maelstrom (part 1)

(This post contains minor story spoilers.)

From pretty early on we decided we wanted to use the same physical setting for multiple social hub stops. This was partially motivated by the cost of building social hubs, but much more significantly from playing JRPGs like Radiant Historia and Persona 4 and seeing how much they re-visited similar areas and how it helped the game feel cohesive. Ultimately, while there are hundreds of unique story paths through Hellenica, they all exist in the same world, so it makes sense to have some recurring locations.

That's not to say the social hub experience is the same. The majority of a hub's dialogue is specifically addressed to the current story points, and the dialogue that can be shared is mostly only flavor details or character introductions.

Additionally, as you can see from the story tree in this post, story paths will reconverge on social hubs and we have to use custom dialogue to make the narrative flow smoothly from what was previously happening.

In one respect, the airship scene is a great tool for managing this sort of story flow because it's not fixed in a geographic location. It can show up anywhere! It can take the players anywhere! But the downside is that since so many disparate paths end up flowing through the airship Scene, its dialogue has gotten labyrinthine. In social hub layers 4 and 5, the airship scene can be entered from 6 different paths, and exited to 5 different ones.

The problem is compounded because in some paths (not all!) the airship scene is where the final party member, Scylax, joins. Of course, the airship isn't the only point where Scylax can join the party, there are 6(!) different situations where he can encounter the party and decide to join. Naturally, there's a bunch of custom dialogue for all of these, but there also needs to be significant shared portions so our writers have some common narrative ground to build on. The end result is that a 7000+ word "Scylax joining" web needed to be at least partially integrated with all the airship dialogue.

Scylax joins the Party Dialogue Tree

And for additional fun, the NPC Nyx could maybe(but not necessarily!) be accompanying the party on one of the incoming paths.

Can our heroes find a way out of this dialogue maze? Tune in next week to find out!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

UI rework post-mortem

Recently, I've been reworking the UI for the tactics portion of Hellenica.

My initial prototype of the tactical planning interface suffered from a classic game design mistake: granting the player too much freedom. I had wanted the planning interface to be very powerful. At any point, the player could modify any character's position, use and retarget any abilities, and even step backward and forward in time to reevaluate the side effects. As changes were made by the player, the game board would take care of updating everything correctly to stay true to the game rules.

Since I designed it, I knew how everything worked, so for me it was great. I was an expert user. Once it was in the hands of other players, however, the failings were immediately obvious.

The flexibility ultimately meant that there was no structure to the planning. "Do whatever you like, whenever you like" became "I have no idea what I should be doing right now." Eventually, players progressed through clumsy experimentation, though in a playthrough several levels long, this only led to a very shallow understanding of the planning functionality.

It also meant that players weren't playing most optimally, because they didn't always know if they could still attack or they could have moved last turn. Because I had given the player so much freedom, I expected them to just play around during planning. In this way, they could learn what they could and could not do that turn, so explicit feedback in the UI wasn't as necessary. Clearly, it was necessary, as players needed some level of feedback to reach the stage of mastery at which they're comfortable just playing around.

So, what did I change?

 1) Imposed structure: force the player to always assign an action to each party member
The planning flow won't progress until each and every character is assigned an action. If the player doesn't want a character to use an ability or they're unable to take an action for some other reason, they can always use the Orient ability to set their facing.

 2) Internal consistency: explicitly visualize all currently available options in the same way
Everything a player can do takes the form of a character ability. Previously, movement was performed by targeting a tile without any ability selected, creating a confusing, implicit state. Now, the player must select the Move ability and choose their target like any other character ability.

These were the two big deltas. Aside from this, I also worked with the goals of designing something that affords simple, touch-based controls that can be extended to a mouse and keyboard and keeping the UI as minimal as possible to reduce screen clutter.  (Note that the art is still just placeholder, and the icons are used with permission from here.)

Let me know what you think!