Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Game in Three Acts

One of the many reasons people will tell you to not make a game with the sort of crazy branching narrative that Hellenica has is the problem of cohesion. Good stories are more than just a series of independent events, there are overall narratives, themes, and pacing that ties it together. We've got strategies to help with all these areas, and in this post I'm going to talk about how we use a three act structure to keep pacing cohesive.

I don't have any formal training in this stuff, most the theory was just taught to me by my friend Mark "Bergy" Berghausen as we were writing LARPs together in college (more social/narrative focused, none of this "Lightning Bolt!" crap.) At first, I had only considered it as a way of telling stories in games, and only eventually (through exposure to the likes of Moviebob and the prequels' reviews) came to realize the three-act structure was very common to movies as well.

Anyway, here are three acts we're using for Hellenica.

Act 1. Introduction
This is the most subdued of the three acts as the heady stakes have not yet been introduced. Most of the party members should be introduced in this act. Likewise, most of the combat mechanics should be introduced to the player at this time.

Act 2. Adventure
During act 2, the protagonists are committed to their task, and they will gel and gain confidence throughout this act. The high stakes should be established, but their consequences aren't immediate, there's still time for the party to prepare.

Act 3. Apocalypse
During act 3, the stakes are at their highest and immediately threatening. Everything seems to be falling apart and the world might end unless the heroes can do something right now! This is also the act for desperate and extremely heroic actions.

Already, this serves as a general sort of emotional outline to adhere to when writing all the social hubs on a given story level. So even though a player in act 1 can choose to shift her priorities from consulting the Oracle at Delphi about a vision to instead looking for a missing theomechanist (inventor), both of these quests have a similar sort of exploring/learning about the world vibe.

That part isn’t so bad. Far more complicated than managing the tone in social hubs is coming up with compelling transitions between the acts. Because of the way our story is structured, there are about 15 different paths leading to 6 different hubs at the end of act 1 and 2. To address this we made sure we paid very close attention to these “plot points”, brainstorming and discussing a bunch of transitions that would make sense for our world and characters before writing the adjacent social hubs.


For the first plot points (the act 1 -> 2 transition) events like learning the meaning of your vision from the oracle or seeing the wicked luddites seize power in Athens after Socrates’ assassination make the world feel less safe and give the party a force (and usually a villain) to work against, shifting us from Act 1’s “introduction” tone to Act 2’s “adventure”.

Similarly, our six second plot points (the act 2-> 3 transition) are full of crisis and plans gone awry, Obi-Wan dies, the invasion of the fire nation during the solar eclipse ended up being a trap, and Master Li kills you and takes the spirit monk amulet (okay, those are technically from other stories, but they have a similar feel as our second plot points, and I hate giving away spoilers).

So that’s how we use a three act structure and plot points as narrative linchpins to keep a cohesive pace throughout our story web. Of course there’s more to a story than pacing, and we’ll talk about narrative and thematic cohesion some in future posts.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Historical References

In this week's blog post, we thought it'd be fun to go over the various historical inspirations and references used when building Hellenica's world. Of course, given that the Greeks are riding trains and fighting battles in steam-powered mechs, we weren’t overly concerned with historical accuracy. However, we wanted to have a good handle on the myriad interesting cultures, people, and events of the period. This gives us a wealth of narrative material to draw from and helps us keep an internal consistency to the world.

It might seem silly to use historical books in the age of the all-knowing wikipedia. But we found that while books can't compete with the online encyclopedia's raw breadth of knowledge, they can provide context and narrative you might completely miss just jumping between wikipedia articles.

Case in point is the awesome Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece, which served as my main jumping-off point into researching Greek history. It takes a novel approach for a history book in that its chapters are divided not by time periods, but by concepts. As a result the reader isn't as bludgeoned with dates and can really become immersed in each chapter’s topic. The chapter breakdown also makes it a handy reference and brainstorming book, and if we need ideas for a given aspect of our setting we can just read the relevant chapter. Additionally, this book features a 6-page “who’s who” list of ancient Greeks which we combed diligently to help fill out the supporting characters in our setting.

My next main reference book, A History of Greece by J.B. Bury, is an entirely different animal. It’s essentially a mammoth timeline, exhaustively documenting Greek history up to and including Alexander the Great over the course of 800 pages. It’s a much less accessible work, but a great reference if we want to know all the minutiae surrounding a specific event. It also has one of the best maps of ancient Greece we’ve found.

The next two books are similar in that they both center on the relatively narrow time period of our setting, Athen’s Golden Age and its decline, albeit with different focuses. Where Great Cities of the Ancient World (specifically, the “Violet-Crowned Athens” chapter) concentrates mainly on the politics of the period, Lords of the Sea focuses on the naval developments and battles which influenced the course of Athenian history. The temporal scope of these books and narrative nature made them good tools for getting the feel of Greece (particularly Athens) in the time of our setting. They also were the source of some excellent quotes.

Here’s Great Cities delineating JRPG-ready world cultures for us:
“The city-states diverge widely in their cultures. The Spartans went in for austere militarism, the Corinthians for trade and luxury, the Thebans for rustic stolidity, and the Athenians for intellect.”

And I’ll end the post with two longish quotes about the Athenians of this period.

Lords of the Sea, describing an Athenian general:
All those gifts of mind and spirit that set Athenians apart shone at their brightest in Phormio: optimism, energy, inventiveness, and daring; a determination to seize every chance and defy all odds; and the iron will to continue the fight even when all seemed lost--even when the enemy had already begun to celebrate their victory.

And what the Spartans were told about the Athenian industriousness:
And you have never considered what manner of men are these Athenians with whom you will have to fight, and how utterly unlike yourselves. They are revolutionary, equally quick in the conception and in the execution of every new plan; while you are conservative-careful only to keep what you have, originating nothing, and not acting even when action is most necessary. They are bold beyond their strength, they run risks which prudence would condemn; and in the midst of misfortune they are full of hope. Whereas it is your nature though strong, to act feebly; when your plans are most prudent, to distrust them; and when calamities come upon you, to think that you will never be delivered from them.
They are impetuous, and you are dilatory, they are always abroad, and you are always at home. For they hope to gain something by leaving their homes; but you are afraid that any new enterprise may imperil what you have already. When conquerors, they pursue their victory to the utmost; when defeated, they fall back the least. Their bodies they devote to their country as though they belonged to other men; their true self is their mind, which is most truly their own when employed in her service. When they do not carry out an intention which they have formed, they seem to have sustained a personal bereavement; when an enterprise succeeds, they have gained a mere installment of what is to come, but if they fail, they at once conceive new hopes and so fill up the void. With them, to hope is to have, for they lose not a moment in the execution of an idea.
This is the life-long task, full of danger and toil, which they are always imposing upon themselves. None enjoy their good things less, because they are always seeking for more. To do their duty is their only holiday, and they deem the quiet of inaction to be as disagreeable as the most tiresome business. If a man should say of them, that they were born neither to have peace themselves nor to allow peace to other men, he would simply speak the truth.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

An experiment in dealing with occlusion

One of the fun ("fun") problems you run into when developing an isometric tactics game is that of obscured visibility or occlusion.

With terrain that can take on arbitrary heights, it is very easy to build levels that will allow the player to place their characters right up next to one or more walls, blocking them from view. Any level with moderate complexity will likely afford this situation.

Here's an example from Final Fantasy Tactics. Our hero looks woefully outnumbered, but have no fear. Four of his allies are just on the other side of that building! Let's hope they've got an alchemist able to use Phoenix Downs amongst their ranks..

Information is the key resource in these kinds of games, so when a player can't see the board properly, they will make it very clear to you, the developer, and anyone else they can get a hold of.
  "I hate this annoying camera!"
  "Why can't I just rotate the camera around here?"
  "This game is terrible!"
And all the while the poor designer in charge of the game camera is just trying to line up some quality shots of the action. I feel you, buddy.

I think this tendency to victimize the camera is a learned one for most gamers. Many games give the player some level of control over the camera, so they are accustomed to a certain level of agency when it comes to problem-solving visibility issues. Unfortunately, in most games it is quite difficult to design a flexible camera that will thoroughly empower the player while always creating a compelling composition on screen. Kudos to you if you're making a first-person or top-down game!

So yes, we have implemented the standard Tactics rotate and tilt controls in Hellenica. But recently I've been experimenting with a different approach as well.

From within our editor, I can mark up sectors of the tile map to assign tiles to specific visual groups. Here's what that looks like on one of the levels I showed off last week:

At run-time, the game splits up the environment into separate meshes based on the visual group assignments. This allows me to selectively modify material properties on individual visual groups, properties such as alpha, for instance.

So, what's the point of all of this?

Basically, I can evaluate the camera's position and direction and decide what I want the player to be able to see at any given moment. This is usually a set of characters that should be in view and any highlighted, interactive tiles. If any of these things are obscured by tile geometry, I can pick out the guilty party, and make it temporarily transparent.

Here's a before and after shot:

This is just a first pass at this technique, but I'm pretty optimistic given the results. I have some changes coming down the pipe to clean up the tile geometry a bit which I think will really make this approach work well. Obviously, each additional visual group has a distinct performance cost. That is still something to explore in more depth, but I am not too concerned.

I'm really hoping that this solution will be a win for usability and player happiness as well as visual fidelity. I know I can count on the players to let me know if that's the case in the end.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Combat prototyping

I've been doing a lot of combat level prototyping lately, so I thought I'd provide a brief glimpse into my process.

We're going to have a large number of levels that take your party to very different locales, but when designing each one, my approach is similar.

As with most things in our game, the story comes first. To start, I first collect all of the necessary story elements that I may need to convey in a level. Are there any special events that should take place or characters that should be introduced? Where will the combat likely occur given the current status of the party's journey? Sometimes larger story arcs specify dialogue that needs to take place in a level, and other times I'm free to come up with my own chunk of narrative.

Oftentimes, these details will help me define the overall flow of the level and the broad strokes of the composition. For instance, if the party is waylaid at sea by a band of theomechanist pirates, I know that I'll be building an encounter on boats with lots of nice choke points, and there will be some fun banter between the pirates and the party.

Once the story details are understood, I think about any specific gameplay design goals I may have. In the early levels, I usually focus on teaching the player the mechanics of combat and helping them learn tactics that will benefit them in later levels. I also want to make sure that there are plenty of opportunities for the player to exercise their newfound skills.

During this stage, I usually play around a lot with various level layouts, either by drawing on paper or creating quick whitebox levels. We have a snappy editor built in Unity that allows me to build out a tactics level in just a few minutes.

Here are some example levels where I was playing around with height. There are opportunities for the player to exploit ranged attacks from on high, as well as use their push abilities to damage and displace the enemies.

Creating these rough whitebox levels also allows me to pinpoint problem areas before we invest too much time into polishing them. Here's a whitebox level that was fun to play but quite confusing to look at due to the overlapping tiles in the bottom right of this screenshot.

Sometimes I'll do a quick coloring pass over the whitebox level to help communicate a special feel for the location. It's a cheap way to help the player understand a scene before we are able to invest in completing the art for a level. It's surprising how much information you can glean from a few simple colors and shapes.

As with any challenge in game development, these levels are constantly in flux as I receive feedback from players, but you may very well see these levels in the game some day!

Hopefully this little peek into my process was insightful. I'm still learning and adapting, but every level feels like it's better than the last.

Let me know if you have any questions, I'm happy to dig in more if there's interest.