Science Fixer: Launch!

Most of us know that sound doesn’t travel in vacuum. Apart from school, we’ve been taught it by negative examples in countless movies so obviously bending the laws of physics that the suspension of disbelief was the only way to fully enjoy the show. The roaring engines and thunderous explosions in space are cool and add to the experience. They are also easy to implement and easy to digest by audience because: suspension of disbelief. The same applies to laser guns, artificial gravity, flying cars and plenty of other SF concepts that work in the comfort zone of ‘suspension of disbelief’. These trends are so well established, that they became predictable. And while hard-core science approach hinders the accessibility of the medium and is simply slow and boring, the trick with technology working in a ‘magical’ way is not doing the trick anymore (at least to us).

When working on our SF game, we have an ambition that it will add some more scientific spin to commonplace science-fiction concepts. While we do not want to make it too heavy on science, we at least want to try to do some reality check and make the technology in our setting a bit less ‘magical’. This approach demands some in-depth research in the fields already visited by SF, and we agreed that it would be nice to share our findings and conclusions with the rest of the world. Of course it’s not a serious futurogical analysis, we’re still playing with science-fiction concepts but a bit more in a nerdy fashion.

And so we came to announce the new series, where we’ll be discussing some potent science-fiction tropes. The series is called Science Fixer, as we will be trying to fix some faults in  ‘science’ part of pop-cultural science-fiction. Don’t get us wrong, the ‘lite’ approach is fun and we really love light-sabres, but SF scene is a bit out of balance with strong representation of quasi-science and scarce manifestations of hermetic hard SF. Science Fixer will attempt to bridge the pop-cultural approach with hard SF view by picking up some popular or exotic SF concepts and try to figure out what it would take to actually make them work. Also, we’ll highlight some facts, that are commonly sacrificed on the altar of licentia poetica, or may no be obvious enough to draw attention. While we’ll keep away from academic approach, will try to stick us much as possible to scientific knowledge. The main idea behind the series is to shake some well established SF tropes and encourage you to take some critical view point on what popular culture is selling you as science-fiction. We also hope that Science Fixer will inspire you to do your own broadened research, that hopefully will result in some fruitful discussions in comments down below.

The first episode, which will act as a trial. If it ends up well and catches some attention, there will be more coming. Each episode will be illustrated by leading infographics, to give you a quick view on the content. We’ll be distributing these infographics through our social media, and if you feel like reading you can jump from there to the relevant post and see the full content. And of course you can share it with the others 🙂

Stay tuned for the first episode incoming next week. There will be lasers!

The world in construction pt.3: An inner perspective

Alright, we have the ludings roughly designed, and now we want to imagine how they perceive a game setting. It is essential to visualise the player’s experience, as the game protagonist will be a luding. The first shot was to tell a world’s recent history with a mouth of regular inhabitant. A bit ignorant and playful, but that’s what the most of ludings are. We had to play a bit with the original backstory, reform it and adjust to ludings instead of humans. We wanted the backstory to be less pompous and more carefree, including the naming convention. Stay awhile and listen.

Our life and civilization started on Mom, our homeplanet orbiting around gas giant that we dubbed the Red Lamp. Some scientists claim we come from some cosmic jelly, but who cares. Anyway, ludon civilization expanded and after many generations we managed to populate all planets in Red Lamp system. It was so cool for ludings to live on various planets, build cities, develop some crazy technology, robots and stuff. It was a golden age of automationism – the progressive mindset of liberating the ludings from any toil and sorrow through widespread automation. Automationism also made an ultimate promise of curing the ludings from demastosa – that innate disease that makes each luding to fade and die overtime.

It was going well until we had this massive crisis a few generations ago called The Fail. I don`t entirely understand how did it come to this, because all seemed fine: the technology was so advanced that actually almost no one needed to work. How cool is that! Robots and computers got all things done and the ludings could do whatever they pleased all days long. But for some reasons, many folks could not afford the living. Without understanding of that new order, without work and without livelihood, they remained unfit and unnecessary. So they got angry and then mad. They protested and rioted heavily against some powerful corporations, so the suits lost their patience and smacked them really hard. Then it got even worse, the riots scaled up to local wars. Finally the corps released the Gloom – that demastosa accelerating virus to ‘optimize the population’ and ‘pacify the instigators’. Many, many ludings perished at the time.

And then came the Ludon Collective. These guys started as a bunch of rebels fighting against automationists supremacy, but it was The Fail, that made them really stand out. They sabotaged and infiltrated corporate facilities and finally managed to steal the remedy for the Gloom. The chaos went to a halt, as they gave away the remedy to infected ludings. With the support of frustrated majority, they felt confident enough to reach for political power, bringing back some order during the times of bumpy ride. They established a regime that was meant to ‘protect our civilization from falling into oblivion of technological debauchery’ – their words. The Collective embraced luding hand as their symbol and struggled to provide the meaning of life through work for every luding. It looked cool at the beginning because they kicked away the robots from factories and brought back the work back to the hands of ludings. They banned the AI, talking computers and many other beeping devices. Only tools and hand-operated machines were declared legal. What’s more, they blocked all genetic research., which resulted in abrupt halt of all pending projects aimed at finding the cure for demastosa. They justified it that this kind of research is more likely to result in another Gloom, rather than wonder-cure for demastosa, and that the ludings must learn to accept their mortality. The omasta was to remain the ‘uncharted essence of life allowing us all to retain true luding spirit’ – their words. And folks did like it, it seemed to them fair to even the odds between rich and poor, at least organic-wise. In order to keep the progressive aspirations at bay Ludon Collective formulated the Prime Doc – a set of rules preventing the ludings from losing their nature in lieu of technologically improved existence and reaching technological singularity. Most of population was happy with the decrees of Ludon Collective, as they balanced social inequalities, gave work and threw away many hindrances of freedom of a choice (by simply limiting or canceling any choices). There were of course few malcontents that opposed the populist politics of Ludon Collective but they quickly felt the breath of SPUX on their backs. The SPUX was the special security force tasked with suppressing any expressions of non-adherence with Prime Doc. SPUX stood for Special Prevention Unit, and X was added to make it sound more badass.

And so it lasted for a good deal of time. Folks say it wasn’t that bad – a bit boring and ridiculously bureaucratic. The paperwork was inflated to absurd scale in order to improve control over population and satisfy the demand for work. Civil rights were reduced, just in case, and wealth was redistributed. For generations no one died in misery but also no-one died in luxury.

But no power is given for all times. The Ludon Collective regime finally collapsed under its own weight, and regulated lives of our folk went completely off the rails. With pre-Fail generations long gone, the explosion of freedom completely twisted the rules of existence. The most cunning individuals made a rapid profit before the masses made out what actually just happened. The most clueless ludings were immediately pushed into poverty or economic slavery. Some made fortunes overnight, some lost the lifetime savings in shady, ill-placed transactions. Freaky Science and gene-engineering, finally unleashed, allowed to expand the lifespan, cure diseases and sculpt hot bodies for those who could afford it. Free trade flooded the planets with wanted and unwanted stuff.

The luding folk, united up to that day under the emblem of a toiled hand, now became split into quarreling factions following conflicting ideas. The remnants of the regime administration, desperately tried to make out the most of new situation: the suits and officials placed their bets on those who held power in various factions, SPUX enforcers went rogue lending their firepower to the highest bidder in sight, some tried to make quick and easy money on raiding and pillaging. Daring enterprises were launched to scavenge the resources of fallen regime. Cool new cities were built upon public buildings and blocks of flats. A toiled hand of Ludon Collective became only a symbol of times that passed.

And now we are finally free and, again, we can do whatever we want.

 

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.

About how we are starting a blog and where we are

Hereby we start a blog. We’ll continue to inform of important events for our team, we’ll also start writing a devlog of our newest project and possibly will fit a few more general thoughts related to games. We can’t promise anything but we will try to publish once a week.

Recent and upcoming events

Last week we completed our game Master Lander. It’s available on itch.io. It doesn’t really get much interest, but that was expected for many reasons. The key thing is that it looks decent and we’ve learned a lot while making it. The only thing that didn’t go well, was the timing. We surpassed every possible due date and so we begin our next project much later than we expected.

We try to build a solid ground for our next game trough a thought trough creative vision and gameplay outline. It will be a science fiction game. We think science fiction should most of all appeal to our knowledge about the world in creating an interesting story rather than limit itself to just using a specific visual theme or general topic. This is what we currently miss in games and we’ll by trying to appeal to other people who also look for something like that.

The other important aspect of the game will be a clear influence on the world players can have tough their actions. The world is supposed to feel live and authentic so that the changes happening there will be unmistakeably interpreted as consequences of players choices.

Soon we should have a title and a more detailed description. So far we just had our first attempts at the visuals that will be capable of communicating the two above points. It can be found on reddit.