SiN Episodes - Official Blog Posts
All of the 17 blog posts published by Ritualistic Entertainment regarding Sin Episodes from the timespan of late 2005 to late 2006 on their official now archived website is moved here for further preservation, clarification and organisation.
Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve updated this thing. Too long really. We’ve got lots and lots to talk about, so I’m just gonna get right to it.
Upcoming Patch / Update
Now, normally, most people don’t really give two shakes about a patch update. But this is pretty big. The oft mentioned Arena Mode is coming. This is really exciting for us because we’re not only adding an entire new mode to Emergence, but one with a very devoted focus -- replayability. Now, just to stem off any rumors, concerns, or worries, Arena Mode is NOT a replacement for Multiplayer. We’re still hard at work on that, and it’s still slated for a future release. So, what is Arena? It’s been mentioned in a few places, but I’m not sure if I’ve properly addressed it here. So – here it goes: Arena Mode, is an all new competitive single player experience where you face off against an onslaught of SinTEK foes. The longer you survive, the higher your score, but this is no ordinary challenge. Every moment you’re in the game, the Personal Challenge System continues to shift the difficulty, keeping the pressure on. You can translate the PR-Speak into this: It’s an infinitely repayable single player mode where you continually try and beat your high score. The best way I can explain the experience is this. Do you remember the Bank scene from the original Matrix movie? Imagine playing that. Now, in addition to Arena Mode itself, and a few sundry DirectX 7.0 bugs, the patch will also feature 4 all new Arena Mode maps.
- Highrise Lobby Arena Map
- The Office Arena Map
- Turbine Arena Map
- U4 Processing Station Arena Map
As I mentioned above, this is a competitive experience. Now, I know. I know, you’re saying, "But Shawn, this is Single Player. How can it be competitive? You suck." But alas, it is not so. To add some additional fuel to the competitive fire, we have stat tracking in place, so you’ll (in the very near future) be able to see how your scores stack up against others.
This actually provides a nice transition for me. I want to talk a little bit about our stat tracking. First off, the stats we’re tracking are anonymous, so we’re not tracking any personally identifiable information, secondly – and, frankly, much more exciting – we’re hard at work on a system that will allow all of you to access these anonymous stats online. So, in the case of Arena Mode, you can see what the best score is on any map, or the longest survival time, or best accuracy – heck, even worst accuracy. We’re going to be getting a lot of great data, and we want to make sure it’s available to everyone.
Now, with Arena mode, there’s going to be demand for new maps. Well, very soon, we’re going to be releasing a tools SDK to address that very issue. The SDK will feature everything a budding mod-maker will need to create Single Player or Arena Mode maps. I can’t wait to see what the community does with this, and what kinds of crazy maps will come out. I’m expecting some really wild Arena maps to come out very soon after we release this release. Related to this, in order to help budding map makers and modders out, we’re going to be putting up a Wiki, where we’ll have all our “how-to’s” and strategies in place so that you guys and gals don’t have to pull your collective hair out trying to figure out how to set up and configure everything. Community support is a big focus for us, and this is one of the ways we’re trying to meet it.
Whew… If you’re still reading this, I commend you. There’s a metric ton of text up there. Anyway, I’ll get to what you’re probably all most interested in – What’s going on with Episode 2? We’re knee deep in production in Episode 2. There’s a ton of cool stuff on our plate right now, we’re playing with some of the features we trimmed out of Emergence along with some new ideas that already proving pretty promising. I will say the entire team is really psyched right now, the fact that we’re getting to roll right off of one great product onto another with the same great team and same great tech is phenomenal. We really got to the ground running this time, and it’s gonna show. I don’t want to give away everything, but I’d be on the look out for some Episode 2 media in the near future. Well, after all that, I’m going to hand off to Tom Mustaine, and let him give you the update on what’s shaken out of our E3 showing – Some updates on our E3 girls(hawt), the Vigor competition, and more. Have at it, Tom.
An E3 update?
Hey Everybody! So E3 2006 was a while ago now, why so long for the update you ask? Well, short and simple answer, we've had our head down cranking away on finalizing the Episode 1 shipping efforts (Germany, SDK, Arena mode, etc...) and working hard on Episode 2. So, onto the (belated) E3 2006 update!
The Show for SiN Episodes
SiN Episodes was in a lot of places on the show floor this year, at the Logitech, Nvidia, and Microsoft booths. Each booth offered a different experience for the game, at Nvidia you would play the game on a 30" Dell monitor, powered by a state of the art customized Vigorgaming Force Recon machine with the latest Nvidia hardware, needless to say, those monitors with that hardware behind it made for an experience where you would need to use your entire peripheral vision to play the game, talk about immersion! Over at Microsoft, we had the Personal Challenge System cranked way up for in the High Rise section of the game, so anybody that gave the game a shot there would get a real taste of what the PCS system had to offer. Finally, over at the Logitech booth, we went all out! You could play the game on 3 SiN Episodes customized Vigorgaming Force Recon machines with Logitech G15 keyboards, two of which were playing the singleplayer game, the other playing our new Arena mode that Shawn talked about above, and of course, we had the REAL Elexis and Jessica there too, Bianca Beauchamp and Cindy Synnett dressed to kill and always surrounded by a giant crowd!
The Vigorgaming SiN Episodes: Arena competition
The folks over at Vigorgaming were kind enough to donate one of the SiN Episodes customized machines to the winner of the SiN Episodes challenge, where players competed for the highest scores in Arena mode. The top 3 winners walked away with prizes, but only the first place winner got the super pimp Vigor machine. The competition was fierce, we had hundreds of contestants test their skills against our Personal Challenge System, but ultimately, a few individuals kept their eye on the prize. First place: Jason Mohr from NPC Gaming with a score of 4989 Taking home the SiN customized Vigorgaming Force Recon PC an AMD Athlon 62 X2 4400+ Processors / 2G / GeForce 7900GT Jason said in an email "The machine is awesome, loving every second of it!" Second place: Arnold Braxton with a score of 4402 Taking home a Logitech G5 mouse and a copy of SiN Episodes Third place: Daniel Gowie with a score of 2538 Taking home a Logitech G5 mouse and a copy of SiN Episodes Congratulations to those guys for winning the competition! Look for a Ritual podcast coming soon with some video footage from both E3 and the SiN Episodes competition.
The REAL Elexis and Jessica!
This was by far the most exciting part of the show for us. Bianca, Cindy, (and Martin, their photographer) did an AMAZING job at the show, drawing an enormous crowd for hours every day. We had people coming by the booth to play the game, and were totally sidetracked by the girls, and others (like a former Guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers) coming by specifically to meet the girls. Either way, Bianca and Cindy put on an amazing show, and in the end, Bianca actually won Babe of Show from G4TV! For people interested in seeing more of Bianca and Cindy as Elexis and Jessica, head over to Bianca's LatexLair, where this month they are running 105 photos from the SiN Episodes photoshoot, along with 3 videos covering their E3 experience in amazing detail. Also, for a more detailed description of the events at E3 from Bianca's perspective, check out her diary at the lair (Select "Diary" under the "Bianca" menu on her site.) Whew! Shawn wasn't kidding about a GIANT update! Lots of very cool stuff coming down the pipeline for SiN Episodes, so check back soon!
All right, I'm back after all the shipping chaos, and ready for a little bit'o'blog. Got a lot to chat about, so you might want to strap in. First off, I'm very excited about the positive response many people have been giving the game. It's awesome to see people really digging Episodic content, the gameplay, the story, and the characters. I think everyone has commented on the raw "fun" factor that the game possesses. That was our goal from day one, and I think we achieved it. Things are moving really well for us; after a great launch here in America, we've got our European launch starting today; SiN has a lot of fans in Europe, and we're glad to have the game going world-wide. Now, for the German customers, we haven't forgotten you. Here's what's going on: the initial submission to the German ratings board (USK) failed and the game was refused a rating by the organization - this affects both the Steam and the retail version. We've been working on a localized version of the game for Germany, which will go on sale as soon as it is assigned a rating by the USK. We don't have a timeline for this yet, but we're moving as quickly as possible. So, I'm sure many of you are wondering - "Okay, Emergence is out . What are they doing now?" Well, I can answer that for you. We're hard at work on Episode 2, taking a critical eye to elements in Emergence and going through all the community feedback we've received to make adjustments to the design. On a more concrete level, we're focused primarily on integrating all the cool new features Valve has added to the source engine into the Emergence code base. It's a pretty hefty chore, those Valve guys have added quite a bit of awesome stuff since our last code merge, things like HDR and the like, so there's a solid amount of work to be done. Anyway, after the code merge, things get really interesting - especially for all you Emergence players out there. In addition to Episode 2, we're going to focus on three things: SDK, Arena Mode, and Multiplayer - all three of which will be free to Emergence players. We're as anxious to get these things in your hands as you all are to have them. So, everyone can rest assured that we're not going to be abandoning our fans as we press forward on Episode 2 - We've got a lot of good things planned for you guys. Speaking of fans, we've been getting a tremendous amount of feedback. I'm sure you all have noticed several of us Ritual folks hitting various forums and talking to the community. We're committed to the community and want to use Episodic content to make sure we're giving fans what they want. You guys have already had a significant effect on the design of Episode 2. One of the things we're doing is adjusting the storyline a little. We're moving to the idea of a "Season" -- just like in TV, in one "Season" players will have a full complete story. Take for example, the series 24. At the end of any season, there's a few questions left unanswered, but the primary conflict has been resolved. That's exactly the model we're going for. So, we've shifted all our focus on Season 1, which will span 3 episodes. This is perfect for us, because 3 episodes maps so nicely with traditional story structure: Beginning, Middle, and End. As many of you know, our storyline and background is much larger than just 3 episodes, but as of now, everything we've got is centered on this single 3 episode arc. Another thing we've gotten a lot of feedback on is Blade. The storyline for Episode 1 explains why he's not very chatty; plus a silent hero helps with immersion. That being said, we've heard you guys. You want Blade; plain and simple. So, in Episode 2, there's going to be more Blade. We're still figuring out a few implementation things, and I don't want to give away all the details, but I just wanted to let all of you know you do make a difference. You've spoken and we've listened. Lastly, I want to clarify how we're tackling this idea of Episodic Content. While the overall story line for Season 1 spans 3 episodes, it's not one game split into three parts. We're designing each and every episode to be a standalone game, giving users between 4-8 hours (depending on playstyle) of unique gameplay + replay value + additional content (such as the SDK, Arena Mode, and MP listed above.) Each episode is designed to build on the one before, but offer its own story arcs, features, and specialized content. I'm going to do another hand off to Tom Mustaine in one of the future updates, so that he can give everyone the E3 wrap up. We had a great experience out there, but I'll save all the details for him.
E3's coming, and we're going to be on hand, showing off the game. We've got a couple of very cool surprises in store for the show – so of course, I'm going to talk about that right now! We're unveiling a new game-mode at the show in tandem with a contest to give away a customized SiN Episodes Vigor Gaming Force Recon PC. SiN Arena Mode will debut on the show floor – showing off the power of the Personal Challenge System – in a ridiculously addictive, competitive, and infinitely repayable short-form game-mode. In Arena Mode, the player is locked in a death-match style arena map facing off against an endless supply of dynamically tuned foes. Every second the player is combat, the score increases – the score change is directly tied to how well the player is playing. So, as the challenge increases – so does the reward. Since it uses all the statistics and scoring from our Personal Challenge System, its replayablity is mind-boggling. It's actually hampered our productivity a little since we all keep playing it, looking to increase our scores and obtain smack-talk rights to allow us to humiliate our fellow employees. On a personal note, I'm pretty good – but we've got some guys here that are like machines. So, sadly I've only been on the receiving end of the above mentioned smack-talk and humiliation. Josh Martel – one of our programmers – he made me cry a little. As I've mentioned in previous updates, Episodic Content combined with Digital Distribution gives us all kinds of freedoms; allowing us to innovate and quickly generate new content. Arena Mode is an example of this, helping us illustrate Ritual's commitment to our community, and showing off our vision of what episodic gaming can really be. Shortly after Emergence is released, we'll be doing an update – giving everyone a chance to play with this new mode, and adding staggering amount of competitive replayability to the game. Also, as I'm already talking about the future, multiplayer is coming. I don't want to go into to in too much detail, but the speculations and chatter about Co-Op are actually well founded. We're absolutely investigating different Co-Op options, and Arena Mode is providing a foundation for some of our ideas. Now, I'm going to do a quick hand off to Tom Mustaine. He's going to be on the actual show floor, and can add his perspective to things. Take it away Tom… Okay folks, E3 is going to be very exciting for SiN Episodes this year. For those of you attending the show, SiN Episodes will be all over the show with our partners at Logitech (booth #1624), Microsoft (booth #1246), and Nvidia (booth #300)! First, we are excited to announce a partnership between Ritual Entertainment and Vigor Gaming! Come to the Logitech booth (#1624) at E3 to try your hand against the SiN Episodes Personal Challenge System in the Vigor Gaming and Logitech-sponsored SiN Episodes Challenge! Just put in your name and badge number, and play for the highest score in the all-new SiN Episodes Arena mode! The player present on Friday May 12th at 3:15PM with the highest score will walk away with a customized SiN Episodes Vigor Gaming Force Recon PC! Also at the Logitech booth this year, we are pleased to announce a partnership between Ritual Entertainment and BiancaBeauchamp.com, that you will bring you Elexis Sinclaire and Jessica Cannon live and in person! Cover girl and Playboy model Bianca Beauchamp (Elexis) and Cindy Synette (Jessica) will be appearing at the show floor during these scheduled times - come by and say hello, get your picture taken, and play SiN! Over the next few weeks, you will see more photographs of Elexis and Jessica on both SinEpisodes.com, and biancabeauchamp.com. Also, post E3, we will be announcing a contest to give away another customized SiN episodes Vigor Gaming Force Recon PC along with a number of other prizes. Keep your eyes on SinEpisodes.com!
Great Googly Moogly – WE'VE GONE GOLD.
There it is; the retail version of SiN Episodes: Emergence is now officially gold mastered and off to replication, all in time to hit store shelves in early May. As a team, we're all ecstatic to see all the months of hard work finally packaged up and ready to go. We're also glad that all of you, the fans, will finally get a chance to play this thing. I have to say, though it will undoubtedly come off as a little biased, this game is one of the most fun shooters I've played in a very long time. The action, the story, the art, the gameplay – it all just gels into this tight experience that I still enjoy playing, even now – and trust me, I've played this thing A LOT. I look back at how far we've come, and I'm just amazed. From the early production, when the team was still learning how to use the technology, seeing the early levels (all blocky and textured in nothing but orange), watching our characters evolve, seeing features come on-line; some getting cut, others making the grade; the entire process is thoroughly mind boggling. I want to give credit to the team. This is a group of extraordinarily creative, talented, and driven individuals that have poured their heart into their work over the last months, and the results really show. Emergence is polished, beautiful, and fun – but most of all it has a soul, and that only comes when you have a crew dedicated to the vision of what they're creating and unwilling to settle for anything less than outstanding. So, as Emergence comes to a close, I find myself straddling two worlds. On one side, I'm looking back at Emergence – seeing all that we've accomplished and feeling immensely proud. On the other, I see all that we're going to accomplish with Episode 2, and I'm humbled. Now that we're sitting on this side of Gold Master, it's a great time to hit Steam and preload the game for free. And remember, if you pre-order before May 10th, you can get 10% off. In other news, we launched the Ritual Podcast today, which is going to be a regular series of both audio and video content that will enable you guys to get a closer look at how we're doing things here at Ritual. The first episode features our resident audio guru Zak Belica talking about creating one of the many audio cues in the game - it's truly fascinating stuff, so be sure to give it a listen. Also, Tom Mustaine has set up a kicking MySpace page for SiN Episodes, so all you folks with kicking MySpace pages of your own, be sure to add us ;) Lastly, keep an eye out here for some very exciting E3 announcements coming soon. At any rate, I hope all of you enjoy Emergence as much as I do, and I hope all of you stick around for Episode 2. It's going to be a wild ride.
Well, in case any of you were unaware, you can now preload SiN Episodes: Emergence for free. We're set to unlock on May 10th, so now's the time to get everything pulled down.
As for the rest of our world, production for Episode 2 is well underway. Currently, our coders are working on adding our new technology to the latest version of the Source Engine and already beginning to make adjustments to the Personal Challenge System – we're looking to take this feature even further for Episode 2. They're also making even more adjustments to the AI. We made some cool improvements for Emergence, but we had a number of ideas that got set aside as the design moved forward. Now, we taking those ideas and getting a chance to implement some fantastic stuff. We really want our enemies to feel fluid and dynamic in combat, so this is a big focus for us.
In the Level Design side of things, we've been putting our focus on the environments for Episode 2. The "where" is one of the most critical things for a shooter, as from that you can derive a lot of your gameplay, AI, and weapons – all tailored to work within the world you're building.
Working hand in hand with the Level Design, I've been working to break the story for the episode. Just like in television, we have an over arching story line for the series, but each episode's story needs to be broken (going from outline to fleshed out story – then to full script). This is an interesting process that I will blog about later, but generally we started by looking at where the overall story is going, then began brainstorming cool environments to help facilitate the storytelling. That was an exciting time; there was lots of "back and forth" between story development and environment design. We didn't want to be so ruthless in the story arena that we killed any creativity in our selection and development of environments – after all, we're making a game and we need to make sure that the settings are condusive to a fun experience. Likewise, SiN Episodes is a story driven product line, so we couldn't completely ignore story needs either. I think we've landed on something pretty solid and cool, though nothing is locked in stone.
On the Game Design front, we're adhering to the philosophical ideals we established in Emergence -- If it isn't fun, it's getting cut. This sounds like a pretty obvious methodology, but trust me, as we learned in Emergence, it's not as cut and dried as it seems. A lot of features get momentum behind them, and the more momentum they get, the harder it becomes to cut them. In the end, though, you have to do what's best for the game, even if it means cutting out your favorite feature – which is always painful to do.
Still, I love this time of the project. We're making steady progress, but we're still exploring ideas. Best of all, we're still incredibly flexible, which is going to be critical in the next couple of months as we start getting feedback from all of you. Honestly, that's one of the things I'm most excited about; really using the fast turnaround of an episodic schedule to adjust the game. We want to make the game you all want to play; after all, we're making it for you.
I'd expect blog updates to come more frequently in the next few weeks. There's going to be lots of exciting "behind the scenes" stuff in terms of how we're designing the next episode.
What does episodic gaming mean?
This is a good question, and I think the idea of episodic gaming varies from developer to developer. Everyone's going to bring something different to the table.
I can tell you how we're approaching it.
From the beginning thoughts on the project, we went round and round on what it means to be "episodic." We looked at a number of models, and tried to see how those models fit for our universe and how we thought the games should fall out. As we looked at it, we realized that for us, it didn't make sense to simply make "one" game and chop it up into multiple pieces – To me that seemed to negate many of the advantages of being episodic. Specifically the freedom to innovate and evolve. So, we started thinking about how to structure things. We landed on a high level story concept and spent a lot of time working on the world of SiN itself. From the beginning of the project, I was adamant that every episode serve as a standalone piece of gameplay. Meaning that each episode has the components of a story in and of itself (A beginning, middle, and an end.) Essentially, for us, SiN Episodes works on two levels. The first level is on an episode specific arena. We want every episode to be a rewarding and satisfactory experience for the player. So, we endeavor to make each episode not a "part" of a game, but a complete game in and of itself. It's an idea of scope, not division. Now, there is also a secondary "higher" level as well. While each episode answers questions and tells its own story, it also fits into a larger scale tapestry, asks new questions, and foreshadows events to come. This allows us to have twists and turns in the overall plot. To give some examples from other media, let's look at two outstanding television shows: X-Files and more recently Lost. In both cases, there's certainly an overarching idea behind both shows – Something that extends beyond any individual episode. So, fans that watch the show episode to episode, season to season, get insights into this overarching idea. More casual viewers may miss out on some of the high level threads and plot lines, but each episode is written to be a complete experience. They're written to be like bricks in a building, not chapters in a book. There are of course call-backs to previous episodes, there's foreshadowing to future episodes, there's twists, turns, and the occasional cliff-hangar. But, for the most part, the episodes are written so that having knowledge about these elements can enhance your viewing experience, but they're certainly not required to enjoy the story being told. This is exactly the approach we're taking with our own episodic content. So, with all that philosophical bru-ha-ha, what does this actually mean to our fans? Well, it means that you can expect each episode of SiN Episodes to introduce something innovative and new into the mix, you can expect to get a satisfying story, and you can expect a rock solid fun experience
Exciting times ahead. Emergence is barreling towards the finish line and preproduction for Episode 2 is starting to gear up. GDC is this week, which is very cool conference. The games industry has a few really big "events" E3 being the most recognizable. GDC is a really different beast. E3 is all about the games, while GDC is all about development. Different mindsets, but both are very important for the industry.
One of the really cool facets of our current zeitgeist (yes, that's actually a word, and man-oh- man, it's even pretentious to look at) games, computers, and technology are becoming more and more mainstream. As this occurs, we're seeing more and more interesting technology that's tangential to the game industry things that are not directly game focused, but might have ramifications on how perceive and play games in the future.
Related to this, I'm doing a hand-off for this particular Blog to Tom Mustaine, who had a very interesting experience with a company called IO2Technologies.
The floor is yours, Tom
If you're like me, you are always looking in the "high tech gadgets" section of Wired magazine, or constantly searching the internet for stories about high tech devices of the future, from the next crazy PDA Phone to the next high definition display. About a year ago, an unbelievable video was released from the folks over at IO2technology, depicting what can only be described as a semi-holographic floating image of Google maps, where the user was using his hand to manipulate the Google maps interface. The video was amazing, it was like something straight out of Star Wars. My technolust now in full swing, I dug a little deeper in the IO2 webpage and came across their display device for the future, the Heliodisplay!
The Heliodisplay projects video into mid-air using any standard computer input, so of course, my first thought was "What would SiN Episodes look like on this thing!" Recently, my question was answered, the guys at IO2 were kind enough to let me into their research and development facility and hook up SiN Episodes: Emergence to the Heliodisplay. The results have to be seen to be believed!
Watching Emergence on the Heliodisplay was a wild experience. The video is compelling, but doesn't really do it justice. I expect we'll see the Heliodisplays appearing all over the place in the future, first in trade-shows, then in retail, and finally at home. The applications are limitless.
Being the first game to run custom content on the Heliodisplay is quite a milestone for us, and I want to thank the guys at IO2 once again for giving us a peek at this awesome technology. I can't want to get my hands on one!
Using Context Look to Expand the Story
I wanted to take a little bit of time today and talk about one of our features, and how it relates to the story in Emergence. Those of you who have been following the game closely have probably heard about our Context Look system. We haven't talked a whole lot about this thing, which is too bad, as it's actually pretty slick. One of the things that's always problematic for games FPS games in particular is how to convey the story yet not interfere with the game play. This is tough because you have two different camps. You got the gamers that LOVE story and want to know everything, and you have the gamers that just want to blast things in the face. So, we came up with a system that lets us have the best of both worlds. Like HL2, throughout Emergence, the player will encounter in-game choreographed scenes; these are the scenes that are "Mission Critical" to the story. Everything else, though, is completely optional. The Context Look system allows players that are interested in the deeper aspects of the story to dig in a little further, but allows players that just want to get on with the destruction to do exactly that. The system works pretty much as you would imagine. All over the world are things that have associated dialog. If gamers look at one of these objects the Datacom will chirp, and if they want, they can activate the Datacom and get additional information. Context Look elements go far beyond just the expected datapads or prop. We wanted to extended it to the characters as well, so if you stare at Jessica too long well, she just might have something to say about it. Now, given that the critical elements of the main storyline are conveyed through the choreographed scenes, what kind of information can a gamer expect to get through the Context Look system? Ah That's where it gets exciting. Just like great episodic television, like Lost or 24, SiN Episodes has an overarching storyline that stretches beyond any single episode. Expect lots (and I mean LOTS) of twists and turns in the future. I can tell you now, no one in the game world truly knows what Elexis is planning and what she has done. But, just because none of the characters know, doesn't mean that YOU can't. Embedded within the Context Look elements are hints and clues. Some foreshadow events to come, some throw light on events that have already occurred. Many may not make sense yet. Each and every one of these pieces, though, has a purpose each is a small piece that reveals a bit of the overall story tapestry. It will be interesting to see how gamers react to the elements they find; and even more interesting to see how everyone thinks they tie together.
It's official. We're Beta.
This is a very exciting time. As of Monday, we've shifted entirely to bug fixing and preparing to launch this thing.
It's been a hectic week as well. On Monday we had a company-wide playthrough of the entire game. Everyone was looking for problems and places we could add that last little bit of polish. I got back volumes of feedback, and the Design Team has been locked away for the past two days sorting through it all, prioritizing issues, and slamming stuff into the Bug Database.
The above paragraph might sound a bit like whining, but trust me, it's not. I was ecstatic at the feedback we got. As I've said before (ad nauseum by this point) the game we have right now is already great. All the feedback was just minor little things that we can do to really make it stellar.
Now, in an awkward segue from the game to the industry at large, I'm very excited about the idea of episodic gaming. Granted, I have a bias, but I think we're at the start of growing trend, and this same idea was espoused at DICE this year. Society is moving towards a "customized for me" sort of paradigm. Look at the popularity of iTunes, or the growing movement for a la carte cable channel selection. In more gaming relevant terms, you've got the phenomenal success of Steam, Xbox Live, and of course, the heavy weight precursor of customized games Mods.
Episodic gaming, because of its faster turn around, offers the ability to react to consumer feedback (this has been talked about endlessly already) but it also offers flexibility to try new and really innovative ideas. I can't see this as anything but great for gamers, and it ties directly to the "customized for me" ideal I discussed above. Basically, it's giving all gamers more choice. Gamers can pick and choose titles, options, and gameplay that really appeals to them.
Now, I don't for a minute think that traditional full length games are going away. Nor would I want to. I'm a gamer, just as I'm a developer. I still want epic RPGs, large scope RTS games, and gorgeous, video-card melting, technology pushing FPS games. Just as movies and television provide entertainment in a complementary fashion, I see a similar balance unfolding between full length and episodic gaming as the episodic trend continues to unfold.
Well, hopefully by now you've seen the official Emergence video released today. There's some pretty tight stuff in there, and huge credit needs to go to Tom Mustaine for cranking with the crazy editing skills, and of course Zak Belica our resident sound and music genius.
The video shows much of the progress we've made since the shaky-cam CES videos. There's a lot more polish, nearly all the HL2 placeholder assets are gone, and the gameplay is much much tighter.
Of course, the video is still showing some footage from an older build of the game, in the time it's taken to get everything squared away with it, we've dumped in a phenomenal amount of additional content. Overall though, it's a pretty solid look at what we've got going.
We're days away from being content complete now, so the last few days and the next few days the game is going to be slammed with a deluge of additional assets as we get ready to lock down. Right now our big focus is on choreography sequences, skyboxes, and the little details that make the world feel more "real."
The exciting thing is that we're actually wrapping this thing up. Once we hit our content complete (aka Beta) milestone, all we'll be doing is balance tweaks, bug fixing, and prepping for release.
I want to talk a little bit about how one of our characters have evolved, both in terms of visuals and gameplay as the game has progressed.
We knew from the early design phases that we were going to need a rock solid human enemy to fight. Given the way the story was evolving, we zeroed in on Radek's mercenary army.
In early concepts we wanted to stay away from a traditional military look, so we started off with a stylized black combat outfit. We were still learning the tech at this point, so we weren't solid on what could and could not be pulled off easily so we went with something a little on the safe side. We actually went forward with this concept, getting it modeled, skinned, and in game. You can even see it in some of our very early screenshots. But, like many things in game development, you often don't see the problems until you get an asset in the game -- Which leads to the key word of the day: iteration. First off, we realized that the face mask wasn't working. So we made some adjustments and variations, finally landing on a black face mask, which was a marked improvement. As time went by and the environments began to get more fleshed out, we realized we had a much larger problem: Namely, the black combat suits made the mercs blend in with the back ground, making for a decidedly unfun combat experience. They were thus dubbed: Space Ninjas. Failure. So, we went back to the concepting stage and started again. This time applying all the lessons learned from the first effort.
As you can see, this outfit is more military looking. In a fit of irony, the slight camouflage pattern actually makes them easier to see, which was exactly what we wanted. Additionally, by this point, we had 3 primary styles of Mercenary, so we designed the outfit to allow for color coding. Trim and "pieces of flair" elements on the skin are specific colors based on the Mercenary type. It's a subtle thing, but given the strides we were making with Dynamic Difficulty, we wanted something that will help players pick out different enemies and be able to adapt their strategy to whatever they were facing.
We started with the basics. We wanted a mercenary to shoot at us; that came online very quickly, and we started iterating from there. One of the first additions we made was the ability to "cap" the AI in the knees, forcing them to drop in place. To give you a little taste of the chaos, this feature was actually designed to help facilitate another, player-centric, feature we were prototyping. We ended up cutting the primary feature, but left "capping" because it was cool. Next we began playing with cover behaviors. We actually have a good foundation in there now. The mercs are pretty smart, but this is one of the features I really want to push and expand on in upcoming episodes. The helmet system came on a little while after. This is one of my personal favorites. Basically, as we've stated before, if you get a lot of head shots, the AI starts coming in wearing protective helmets. Of course, if you're a good shot, you can blow that off, which is really great player reward. I will say, as of yesterday, we've got a few more surprises up our sleeves for this system as well. I won't spill it here, but you guys will definitely be pleased. Most of the merc behaviors(the ones described here and many others) are in place now. We're mostly fixing bugs and playing with their reactions. For example, after the shaky-cam footage at CES, we were inundated with feedback that our mercs weren't responsive enough to explosives. This was flagged as a bug, but do to all the great feedback we got, we took a long look at it, making sure we really solved the problem. One of the great strengths of episodic content is our ability to react to community feedback -- this is a great example of that.
It's amazing how much more you know about a project at the end of it than the beginning. While this is applicable to learning the tech, it's even more apt in terms of the project itself. The fact is, you have to start with something - your best guess - but you have to go in it knowing it's going to have to change. A game is an organic beast; it evolves, grows, and changes. As such, any assets you make at the beginning often times just won't quite fit when you get to the end. It's best if you just dive in knowing that, and keep yourself flexible. After all, in the end, it's about what's best for the game and the player.
We're getting close.
For the most part, we have our game now. There's still some additional polish and tweaks that need to be done, a few assets still need to trickle in, and of course, we need to wipe out our bugs. At any rate the game is stable, looks great, and most importantly, is fun. We had a lot of excellent coverage from our appearance at CES. We got a lot of great community feedback from the videos as well. The game has made significant progress since then. I think all but one or two of HL2 placeholders have been replaced with their final assets, we've done additional work on the AI and dynamic difficulty systems, and we're getting more and more of our choreography complete. One of the things I'm getting real excited about is our music. Zak Belica, our sound and music genius, has been dropping in the new music tracks. The game is sounding fantastic. It always amazes me what a difference a good soundtrack makes, it adds to the overall atmosphere and helps accent the player emotions. Right now, our major push is on finishing this thing, but small changes are still bubbling up. We're really trying to focus on those few places in the game that were just “okay,” and push them until they're really fun. Thankfully, at this point, these changes are usually pretty minor, but the sum total of all the changes really adds up and increases the quality of the game. Now that we're closing in on the end, I'm hoping to be able to update this blog a little more often. In the near future I plan to do some updates on the story, the writing process, and talk a little bit about our characters; so as the development winds down I'll be talking less and less about the process and more and more about the game itself.
The voice recording is done. Next stop - choreography town.
Last week we got the VO (voice over) work done, and it came out fantastic. The experience was amazing - as were the actors. Now, I'll take credit for the words. I put a lot of work into those. But I'm not going to even pretend that my direction helped the actors that much - they really didn't need it. This was my first time working with actors like this, and I think I got extremely lucky to work with such an incredible group. These guys and gals just nailed it. I would continue gushing, but I already sound like some half-crazed fanboy, so I'll hold my tongue for now. Besides, all the proof you'll need will come when this thing is released. I'm sure by now you've seen some of the new screenshots; I believe all are from one environment, you'll be seeing more as we continue pushing out media. So, basically, you can consider those shots an appetizer. The art is really coming along in all the levels - we're rapidly hitting all the remaining "dev" textures and placeholders that are still in place. Beyond that we're continuing to polish gameplay. There's a couple of AI characters and some gameplay sequences that need some tweaking before I'll be satisfied with them, but for the most part the dust is settling on the design front leaving us in a real polish phase. Our next big big focus, now that the VO is recorded, is to get all the choreography elements in the game. This is a big milestone for us. Once these scenes are in place, the story will really pop, and the entire game will take on a rough form of its final incarnation.
Ah ha! Two updates in a month. Bet you weren't expecting that.
Things are really cooking here; we're so close to Alpha that you can taste the blood in the water - or some other analogy that's far more lucid and apt. At this point we're trying to get the final assets in the game, continue to art the levels, and iron out the last few design wrinkles that have reared their heads in the last few weeks. The upside is that we're starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Before I get any further though, I want to talk about the team working on this thing. These guys are some of the most dedicated and talented guys I've ever worked with. They're putting in re-dumb-donkulious hours right now as we make the final push towards Alpha. The effort is really paying off too, the game is really starting to look and play great. Many times as I'm playing through our current build preparing feedback, looking for issues, or generally doing any of the other hundred things I do in the game while not actually "playing" it, I find myself slipping into "gamer" mode, simply enjoying the experience. This team is busting everything they got, but it's really making a difference. I feel this is one of the best games we've ever made.
I have finished the heavy-lifting on the script now, I've still got a few straggling lines I need to address but for the most part that beast has been slain. I've written the scripts for a few other games, and this was by far one of the most interesting and challenging I've ever done. The fact that there are no "cut scenes" makes conveying story a delicate operation. Nonetheless, I think it works out pretty well. It keeps everything very very immersive, allowing you to really feel like you are Blade, instead of just playing Blade.
State of the Media
We should have new media very very soon. Yeah, yeah, I know we've been saying that for a week or so, but it's coming. Overall, we're on track and teamwide everyone's shifting into "completion" mode. B, C, and "wishlist" items are getting sliced away and we're focusing everything on tightening and polishing the gameplay.
Okay, so it's been a while - Sorry about that, but here it is. The latest and greatest. We're making steady progress, and it's unbelievable watching everything coming together. Of course, we're going with a real iterative design process this time around so sometimes it feels like we're taking two steps forward and one, two, or even three steps back. That's really starting to taper off, though. With our last big review of the game, we picked up some real solid forward momentum, so, as I mentioned, things are really starting to progress.
One thing that's really starting to take off is our dynamic difficulty system. There's been some mention of it on FAQs and whatnot, but nobody's really seen what this thing can do yet. I want to give a big kudorific hats off bow down to our lead programmer Ken Harward for both coming up with the idea for the system and spearheading its implementation. Now, for the curious, this isn't just a run-of-the-mill autobalancer. This thing is incredible. We're polling statistical data on just about everything: When a player shoots, when a player jumps, how long a player's idle, when a player "uses" something, all kinds of in-game interactions. We'll use some of this to balance the game on the fly to a degree never seen before; that way we can ensure a solid challenging experience for the entire episode.
Playtesting - With a Twist
Where things get really interesting though, is during playtests. We're able to generate a file that the LDs (Level Designers) can pull into the level editor and actually see all the major player actions for a particular run. With that data we essentially have an unbiased timeline of exactly what happened. We can then use that data to further tune the level. It's unbelievable. I can't overestimate the value of fresh playtester eyes on the product. As developers we look at the thing all day everyday, and to be honest, we lose perspective. When we're able to watch a new "fresh to the game" player run through the game, you get to see the game play out in a whole new way. You get to see when the stuff is good, but more importantly, you can't hide from something that's just not working. You're forced to face it and fix it - All which leads to a stronger product.
Well, as of a couple days ago, all the levels for Episode 1 are gameplay complete. However, there's still a big chasm between that and "done." There's all kinds of art that needs to be added and additional polish and balancing that will continue to occur until we lock down right before shipping. Even still, it's a very exciting milestone.
Balancing the Game's Script
In a few days, I'm going to be writing the second draft of the dialog script for the game. I'm looking forward to this, as the dialog is my way of contributing real content to the game. Programmers get to add features, Artists get to add models, Level Designers get to add levels and gameplay. I get to add the story and dialog. There's a lot to a game script. I'm sure many of you out there have seen a movie script, or are at least familiar with how they look. If not, you can use the inter-google to find some. At any rate, when I write a game script, I start with something like a movie script. This is what I call the Narrative. Basically, it's the key sequences and dialog that tell the story. Of course, there's always A LOT more dialog than just that. For SiN Episodes, I'm also on tap for providing the "use" dialog, ancillary conversations, and all the dialog for our Context Look system. But it's that stuff that makes the game world feel like a living place. And that's why I'm excited to do it. One issue that's tough to crack though, is dialog length. Gameplayers are playing the game to PLAY THE GAME! They want story, but most don't care to hear characters drone on in endless exposition. So, more than even screenplays, Game Scripts have a very very tight economy of words. In every case, the message must be conveyed in the fewest possible syllables. Of course, it has to be more than, "Blade, go to the tower!" Each character needs to be an actual character, meaning they need their own way of speaking. These opposing requirements make for some very interesting writing challenges.
Well, it's an interesting time to begin a design journal. We're due to have all the levels gameplay complete by the end of this month. We've got a work cut out for us, but I think we'll make it. Some of you may be wondering, what the hell does "gameplay complete" mean? Well, it doesn't mean "done," not in the sense of what you would see in a store. What it means is that the levels are playable - all the enemies, pick-ups, puzzles, and everything else are placed. It's sort of the first-draft of the game; we'll spend a lot of time polishing and perfecting it after that, but for the most part the game is playable.
I've played through all the levels we have "under construction" at the moment, and I've got to tell all the readers out there, this is going to be something cool. We're taking a new (at least to us) approach to the level design, working up the levels in smaller sections planning out everything, and then testing and reworking it until it's fun. We, as designers, want to ensure that the entire experience is going to be great, and we're well on the path to that right now. There's a multi-disciplined group that meets (usually twice a day) to review where the levels are and to design out where they are going. Any of you aspiring developers out there, be prepared, design is all about meetings. In this case, the meetings are well worth the time, though. Everyone (Art, Level Design, Programming, and Game Design/Production) is all on the same page.
Fighting Feature Creep
This method is also helping us fight off feature creep. We haven't defeated that particular monster yet, but any features we're discussing now are directly applicable to the gameplay at hand. Feature Creep, for the readers out there, is a Software Development term that basically means that the project keeps getting delayed or bloated because features keep getting added to the product. Now, I realize from the above definition it seems like it would be an easy thing to stop. The problem is, Feature Creep can be both subtle and seductive - Especially when you're working on your own project. There's an intense desire to keep adding elements to your product, some of these elements are small, but they do add up - That's the subtly. Also, many of the features you want to add are really great ideas, so it's hard to let those great ideas go, and honestly, sometimes you don't - That's the seduction. At any rate, it's always better to go for depth rather than breadth; meaning pick your core gameplay features and polish, polish, polish. It ends up being much more fun for the game player, and that's the audience we need to please.
Like everything in game development, designing bosses is always more difficult than it sounds. We had a long discussion regarding the functionality of our boss character today, the meeting was a success in that we walked away with a good idea of the approach we are going to take including putting in hooks for additional behavior that may or may not come online. Here's the thing about bosses, it's so easy to overcomplicate them. Many times the character themselves or their environment will lead to an avalanche of good ideas, so you start piling one atop another and eventually instead of good cool boss you have an over-designed, bloated mess. In our meeting we went down this path - I'll admit it - but thankfully we realized the error of our ways and pulled back, but pulled back in such away that we're allowing ourselves some growing room. This, at least at the moment, appears to be the best methodology.
- SiNEpisodes.com (archived)