Sunday, June 12, 2011

Development update, redux

It's been a while since I spoke about Thirst.  The truth of the matter is that, although development is going forward more or less as planned, I'm in a more complex situation at the moment and simply don't have time to work day in and day out on it, as much as I'd like to.  Working for GameBanshee and developing the Fable III walkthrough and game guide in particular is eating up a lot of time, and I might end up doing another one of those for System Shock 2 or another title in the future.

Still, I thought I'd give a bit of an update about what I've accomplished since the last one.  The outside of the Temple District has been tweaked slightly since the last update to accommodate some of the buildings and their functions just a bit better, but it's the interiors which I've now been spending a good deal of time and effort on.

The first is the player's "home base" during the campaign, the lost uncle's home within the Temple District. While not quite so nice as some of the other buildings, I tried to infuse the building with warmth, using lots of red and orange colours, while also keeping things just small enough so as to feel a little bit cozy.

The player starts the game within the house (after the intro cutscene, anyway), and must explore it to get the plot in motion before heading out to the city.  In addition to its storage chest, the house also contains a living room, a bedroom to sleep in (there are few injury kits in Thirst, so beds heal wounds instead), and so forth.

While the uncle character does not appear in the game directly, I designed his home to contain artifacts of his life that the player can interact with... bookshelves, statues, wall carvings and paintings, etc. all contain a snippet of information that help give a little bit of background on him.  I wanted to leave the character intentionally vague in order to allow just about any player to identify with him, without necessarily forcing sentimentality upon the player at the same time.  Either way, it goes a long way towards making the place look a little bit lived-in

The second building is Fourth Sceptre Hall, a grand, well, hall, which serves as a restaurant and social club for the richest and most elite of Arceris' citizens.  Initially the player will be denied entrance to the Hall, owing to the extremely long list of reservations; the player can either wait until a relevant story section and bluff his or her way in, can be allowed entrance through various persuasion options, or can simply hack the guards to pieces, causing the visitors within to flee.

Like many of the buildings in the Temple District, this one uses a "mock Tevinter" style of architecture, meant to imitate the ruins found around Thedas, but as Arceris is only about 200-300 years old, the Temple District along with its interiors were designed to, at least to some degree, copy that architecture.  Inside, of course, it's a warm place, with a lush purple-red tone to help counter-balance the greenish-grey of the stone.

Of course, it also has some of the finest drink in the city.  Combining the Tevinter architecture with more contemporary assets was a little bit difficult; it's hard to get the two sets to blend properly, but I feel like I was fairly successful within the limitations of the existing artwork.

Of course, one of the design goals for Thirst is a believable world, and the Hall is no different, as the player can choose to look through the kitchens if he or she chooses.

I made some modifications to the exterior of the building in order to help better reflect its opulence, as well, with red tapestries and a large Tevinter door replacing the more mundane blue cloth canopies initially seen.

There are a couple more miscellaneous houses that I've been working on in the meantime, which are simply there for the player to explore, and of course loot (though not necessarily without consequences!).  These mansions are a little bit more generic, but once again I try to use different lighting and artwork to help set them apart from the rest of the game world.

The final location, and the one I'm most impressed with visually, is the Council Archives, a large library dedicated to storing the official records of the Council of Six, rulers of Arceris, and to preserving books deemed historically and socially relevant - not quite a public library (the books are warded and anyone attempting to leave with one will be instantly killed), but still an important source of information.

While a nice place to explore, it also serves as a good way of storing the game's lore for players who want to find it - most can be obtained by simply examining objects in the environment or having conversations with NPCs in the world, I wanted to have a "backup solution" for the player to collect some of the more information that he or she might not be able to obtain due to decisions made.  Choice and consequence are big things in Thirst, of course, but sometimes you want the player to be able to always have access to certain information.

I'm very happy with the way this area turned out.  I think that the red entry hall combined with the blues in the wings create a very nice contrast, the carpets and bookshelves do a nice job of providing a sense of symmetry, and the light streaming in from the windows is always a welcome effect.  Despite being an interior, the walls were actually built out of re-arranged dwarven exterior buildings, dozens of them.  This led to a few difficulties in planning how the ceiling was going to cut away when the camera's zoomed out, but it ended up working out surprisingly well.

Minor rant: you may have noticed that some of the lighting on the characters is inconstent with the environment.  As I've said before, Dragon Age uses separate lights for the characters in real-time, whereas the ones in the environment are baked in using lightmaps.  Most of the time, this wouldn't be a problem.  The issue is, Dragon Age's character lighting looks drastically different than environment lighting, so to get these two remotely consistent-looking, well, it's a long and delicate process of constantly rendering lightmaps, exporting them to the game, checking them out in-engine, going back to change them, re-rendering, etc.

Compare this to a more visually sophisticated title, like Unreal Tournament 3, and, well, the results kind of speak for themselves.  Dreariness of that screenshot aside, setting up lights in more modern editors isn't just much, much faster and easier, as you see accurate results in real-time within the editor, it's also completely consistent for characters and other dynamic objects as well, meaning that I'm literally spending about 5 to 10x the amount of time on lighting with Dragon Age than I would be in another editor.  Anyway...

Another major stride I've made, beyond all these new environments?  There is now a concrete introduction to the game.  Admittedly, the dialogue is still a little bit rough and I have yet to create the intro cutscene itself (though I have it "mentally storyboarded"), having a fixed, definite place where I know the game will start from is extremely helpful - I know what information the player starts with and have control over where things go from there, I can go ahead and funnel the experience or simply let the player loose into the world, etc.  While I don't want to get too much into the story, suffice is to say, upon arriving at their old uncle's home, the player soon finds not is all as it should be:

Spirits?  What do they want from our hero?  Do they wish for peace, or for war?  Tune in next time for the answers to these many questions!

Okay, not really.  Although it might seem a little sudden to throw the player into a combat encounter early in the game (a relatively challenging one, but nothing too bad for experienced Dragon Age players), I realised early on that relying on the player's desire to find out what happened to his or her lost uncle wasn't enough motivation to move the story forward, since it assumes the player actually cares.  In order to provide a more universal motivation, I decided to move one of the story events forward to the beginning of the game, whereby the player is attacked by a mysterious spirit.  If the player doesn't have any investment in finding the missing uncle, well, now he or she is hunted by ghosts to drive him or her along as well.  This also introduces one of the major plot points very early rather than mid-way through the game, and although these spirits aren't seen for some time afterwards, it helps foreshadow what's to come.

Sorry about the infrequency of these updates, but as I said, work has slowed and I've been chugging away on GameBanshee content for a while now.  I'm still putting several hours into Thirst each week, so I'm hoping I'll be able to provide a new update relatively soon.  Thanks for reading!