The world in construction pt.2: Inhabitants

When designing SF setting there is a temptation to throw humans into it because ‘why not?’. If it’s space opera then add some altered humans that will imitate some alien races, maybe some robots and that’s it, right? Well, not this time. While there’s nothing wrong actually with humans in SF worlds, we wanted our universe and its inhabitants to be more symbolic and less literal. We wanted the game universe to be populated by creatures seemingly human, but featuring some traits that will amplify the theme of ‘power vs. impotence’ formulated in our creative vision statement. Completely clueless,  I scratched my head and proposed some hallmarks giving the proper spin to world inhabitants design. Here they are:

1. Short-lived: that’s a key component of the ‘impotence’ aspect. Human lifespan is just an eyeblink compared to the history of universe, and the efforts of individuals look pretty meaningless from afar. We wanted our creatures to live even drastically shorter than humans, and let the player experience the passing of time. Given that player character will also feature limited lifespan, it will put a pressure and experience of rush. From a practical point of view, it will allow us to present social and economical changes in the game universe in reasonable play-time of 10-20 hours (single run).

2. Fragile: or, more precisely, an impression of fragility. While our creatures don’t have to be exceptionally easy to kill, they should appear as they were. It contributes both to ‘power’ and ‘impotence’ components because their helpless look would naturally associate with ‘impotence’, and on the other hand it will contrast with the power that technology gives them at further stages of the game, which is fun!

3. Vividly mortal: It should be clear at first glance when our creature is in full health, as well as, when it is a step from perishing. Some easily distinctable features should give a clues about creature’s condition.

4. Adorable: the creatures, through most of their lifetime, should be fun to look at and easy to sympathize with. This will give us a chance to spark a feeling of care in the player  and  also turn-up the contrast when it comes to drastic events. What’s important, the ‘cuteness’ fades away with the time passing by, making the creatures off-putting.

5. Peaceful/Pacifist: at least when the majority of the population is considered. This feature gives the brutal advantage to those individuals that choose the way of violence, contributing to ‘power’ component of vision statement theme.

6. Avoid animal features: while cats and other furries could be really cute and support the adorability requirement from point no.4, we actually want our creatures to resemble humans. We’re still on the far left of uncanny valley, but keeping it human-ish nevertheless.

Few beers later, I figured out, that design-wise, we should fit somewhere within the triad of classic PC games characters: Lemmings (mortality, simplicity), Worms (contrast cuteness vs. violence) and Kerbal (anthropomorphic features).

And that’s how the Luding was born.

Ludings are human-like race populating a small planetary system ‘somewhere else’. Their name comes from words ‘ludic’ and ‘ludek’ (polish word for tiny creature resembling human). They tend to live short, because as a species, they suffer from genetic flaw – ‘demastosa’, which makes their organic essence (that we called ‘omasta’) degrade over time. Their anatomy is pretty simple, but their physiology, though omasta-driven, is fairly similar to human. Luding morphology was inspired by anemones – those strange plant-like animals living underwater. These creatures have no skeleton, but their shape is kept by contractile body. They can walk and talk, they feature sex dimorphism, so after all the appear pretty human. When they die from omasta degeneration they don’t leave the corpse, but rather a shapeless goo called ‘poomasta’. Ages long poomasta evolves into omastite – the mineral that can be mined and processed to acquire construction materials or fuels. What’s important, it’s not only the ludings that are based on omasta, but all the organic life in the game universe. But the ludings are only sapient race that we put into the setting. I bet you can clearly see an obvious connection between omasta and it’s real-life analog and that’s perfectly fine. That is how it’s supposed to work, giving us a practical advantage of simplicity and safe margin for some fictional twists, as well as fueling overall symbolism.

And so we have seeded a setting with a concept of sapient life forms. We’ll see what will grow out of it.

Stay tuned, there’s more to come.

Devlog: How we start a new project

As we were getting preprepared to start our next project, there was one thought in my mind louder than the others:

“The most risky thing you can do is not to take a risk”

Grossly simplifying, most AAA games are sold by brute force. First, lots of money is pumped into the production. They choose a known formula and master it with better graphics, better performance, more content, good balance.  The game is quite expensive to make but it competes with lots of other fairly similar games and there’s no guaranty that it will reach enough audience to turn a profit. This is why up to even half of the overall budget is planned for the marketing and it’s basically spaming the potential buyers. It’s all done to minimise the risk of loosing money and it all requires lots of it.

Indies obviously don’t have that kind of money at hand. The production itself already eats up most of their funds and they cannot afford big marketing campaigns. They need to rely mostly on their communities or hope to go viral to reach a wider audience. So their game cannot simply be good, there are planty of good games out there and lots of them will have better graphics, more content and more polish than the indie can ever dream to muster. The indie  game needs to be interesting on its own terms. Indies  cannot play it safe, so they need to take the risk of going into the unknown.

The idea

So we came up with an idea we think might just work. The main premiss is something we’ve been talking about in our team for a long time. We want the game to be a narrative experience that takes place in a model with a highly reactive social environment that responds clearly to the players actions. The player is a trader and can buy and sell all different kinds of goods on a large scale. The players primary concern will be profit, but the type of transactions they are making will have a visible influence on the societies, usually clearly constructive or deteriorating. This is how narrative part of the game is supposed to emerge without any big blocks of text or heavy story (we don’t have time to write that). It’s a choice and consequence based primarily on the gameplay and mechanics.

We think it’s a cool idea but there’s planty of ways it could be turned into a dull, flat game. Ides don’t make players want to play more and share the game with others, experiences do that. So we want to turn our idea into a unique experience and we can’t just leave it up to a pure luck. We need some good tools.

Creative direction 

Darkest Dungeon is the game that delivers its experience unambiguously. The music, the art style, the core mechanics, the narrator, all of it is very consistent unquestionably directing towards a specific experience. Thanks to that people don’t really notice some of the problems of the game and even if they do they mostly accept it. Chris Bourassa explained how they did it in a GDC speech, and they did it with a strong creative direction. That means they very diligently discussed, defined and wrote down what the game should actually be to the point where the vision itself allowed them to resolve dilemmas in any field of the development like aesthetics, mechanics, marketing etc. Then they just stuck to it.

I really cannot think of a game that is more coherent and apparently they did not achieved it trough luck they did it consciously using an adequate tool. So this is how we’ll try to plan the design of our own game.

Poetic design

Sunless Sea is another game, where you can’t be wrong about the experience it presents. Though it’s very slow and subtle every single minute sinks you a precisely  crafted experience. I had a chance to participate in Alexis Kennedy’s workshop on Poetic Design where he explained how he makes his games (The only video I could find about that is here, though the workshop I’ve been to was much more detailed. You can laso find some interesting thoughts on Alexis’ blog).

Poetic Design is a technique of delivering game narrative with quantitative game assets such as mechanics and UI (independently from any text descriptions or illustrations). It is about making sure that every piece of the game using its specific function and meaning points toward the same theme. As a result the player gets a consistent experience and in consequence a story or at least some kind of narration told independently from the text. Sounds like exactly what we need with our desire to tell a story trough the gameplay.

I like how both of the approaches seem to frame the same topic coherency from different angles and can be complementary to each other.  And so, while creative direction is our plan, poetic design shall be our implementation tool.

Our framework

Having those two inspirations we still struggled to combine them and workout a version that would work for us. It wasn’t easy also because some key terms such as “theme” or “experience” are being used by devs  around the world quite loosely and often in almost contradictory ways. Eventually this is the structure we worked out:

Creative vision statement: is the shortest possible description of all aspects of the game (either trough explicit description or implied consequences). Its main role is to ensure the game as well as any supporting materials remain consistent throughout the whole development process and beyond. At minimum it should imply the game’s genre, experience, story, mechanic and actions the player takes.

Experience: is what the games seems to be to a player. We created a description of what we want the player to feel like during the game. It doesn’t need to be a single thing. In our case it was a whole set of things and relations between then. In some cases we even branch the experience into alternatives. E.g. among other things we want to give the player the possibility of feeling like a cunning space smuggler or a cold and powerful businessman.

Meaning: is what the game is actually about, what kind of message it brings to the player. You can easily imagine a game without or at least with only residuary meaning (what would it be for Tetris?) but we specifically want our game to say something about the world. It doesn’t have to be a closed statement, questiotns work fine as well.

Themes: are the motives used in the game. They should be leading to a single main theme. This is how the mechanics of the game can be put into a context and trough that the assumed meaning can be achieved. This is were we open to the poetic design principles.

Story, Player’s actions, Mechanics: these terms are fairly unproblematic, no need to define them I think. The only thing worth mentioning is that we believe ultimately anything that happens in the game is most of all shaped by the mechanics and this is a principle we want ot embrace.

Populating the scheme

At first we wanted to take a top-down approach where we define things in order from the general level to more detailed ones and don’t come back to a once concluded level. We started with defining the experience which is supposed to be the foundation of what the game is. Then we planned to list a number of scenes and sentences which would constitute the meaning of our game and parallel to that write down the vision statement. Once that was done we were supposed to start working on the production aspects such as mechanics, art, story etc.

We’ve quickly however realised we are constantly moving on the generalisation axis both ways and amending more general stuff to align it to some of our specific ides. The key example of that was one of the core mechanics: flying with an aircraft on a 2D circular planet. We wanted to make it this way to reuse some of the code, balance and experience we already had from the previous game (to save time), so it had to find its way in the experience. On the other hand we couldn’t think of interesting and coherent ways of putting in the game some of the experiences originally planed, so we got rid of them. Yet another time we had an idea for a cool mechanic of getting older and so we extended the list ot themes.

At first I  perceived that as undesirable exceptions to the rule, but after all, we’re not trying to prove anything or meet some client’s specifications, we just try to minimise the risk we take to make an interesting game. The key value here is the coherency of the experience not the direction of the work. Ultimately I think this is simply about finding the balance between all the elements and not giving to one of them the rule over the others.

Moving to production

The nice thing about the framework we worked out is that when we completed it, we basically had game design document ready and in a format that actually had a chance of being useful in the development process. It’s in a kind of a final draft state now and we are still looking to get a feedback on that from people smarter then us.

Now we set out for production and while there’s no chance of eliminating the risk, we at least can clearly and definitely say we tried our best to be able to assume that possibly we do have a chance of actually knowing what we are doing… to an extent.

The world in construction pt. 1: Backstory

We started to build the world for our next PC game. This will be the science-fiction trading game with transhuman tropes. We’re still exploring the idea, but I managed to put together some backstory based on our discussions with Rafał. We agreed on the concept that the world of our game will be on the brink of transhuman revolution, after the fall of regime that regulated the lifes and suppressed technological progress of people populating fictional solar system.  For starter, I came up with short generic backstory, which we may use to buid the setting upon. Rafał prepared some decent visuals. Here’s what we have.

The reign of Humane Collective is over. Consumed from the inside by beurocracy, corruption, inner friction and other afflictions of power, the Humane Collective party has left the stage after decades of ruling the Hearthstar solar system.

Once they were the heroes, the saviors shielding the people from aggressive capitalism and dashing industrialization. They stood up for the laws of toiling masses against the corporations. They helped those who couldn’t catch up with dynamics of digital industry. They protested against replacing people with robots and AI. They fiercely fought the powerful establishment. When the Humane Collective finally reached for political power they were given a great credit from the Hearthstar population, granting them almost absolute power.

Humane Collective put a great legislative effort to protect the mankind from its own inventions. They formulated the Prime Doctrine – a set of rules preventing the mankind from losing the nature of humanity in lieu of technologically improved existence and reaching technological singularity. This enabled the HC to ban the AI research and advanced robotics, leaving only man-operated tools and machines legal. The genetic research and transplant surgery was also blocked by Prime Doctrine that was constantly inflated with new regulations and interdictions. The people of Hearthstar system were given back the right and privilege to work with their own hands. The Humane Collective cared that everyone has a job to do and feels necessary. They valued the life and work of ordinary men and women. Once again, the work – the act of creation, was the domain of people, hence the symbol of Humane Collective: a human hand.

While protective towards obedient citizens, Humane Collective enforced the Prime Doctrine with full power at anyone who questioned this order. The Scrutiny Office – versatile security force, was founded and tasked with suppressing any expressions of non-adherence with Prime Doctrine.

In order to improve the control over the population, the bureaucracy was increased and civil rights were reduced. However still, no one died in misery but also no-one died in luxury.

But no power is given for eternity. Like many regimes in history, Humane Collective collapsed under its own power, and the regulated lives of Hearthstar system citizens went off the rails. The explosion of freedom re-evaluated the rules of existence. The smartest profited from rapid socio-political transformations, others were pushed into poverty or economic slavery. Science and gene-engineering, finally unleashed, allowed to expand the lifespan, cure diseases and sculpt perfect bodies. The free trade flooded the planets of Hearthstar system with wanted and unwanted goods. Some made fortunes overnight, some lost the lifetime savings in shady, ill-placed transactions. The population of Heartstar system, united to this day under the emblem of human hand, split into quarreling factions following conflicting ideas. The remnants of Humane Collective regime tried to find their place in emerging new order. The bureaucrats and officials placed their bets on those who held power in various factions, the Scrutiny Office enforcers went rogue lending their firepower to the highest bidder in sight. Some tried to carve their place in the world by raiding and conquering. Daring enterprises were launched to scavenge material and non-material resources of fallen regime. New cities were built upon public buildings and blocks of flats. Soaring skyscrapers towered over monuments and crude palaces of Humane Collective. A toiled hand of Humane Collective became only a symbol of times that passed.

Hearthstar System faces more than more than just the crisis. After slipping into decentralization and federalism, it stands on the doorstep of turbulent new age. The Prime Doctrine ceased to apply and restrictive laws are no longer enforced. Ungoverned, unchecked and unleashed technological progress, pushes the Hearthstar system toward the brink of transhuman revolution.

The future is uncertain. Again.