Devblog—Feb 28, 2017

First of all, HAPPY MARDI GRAS

Kind of a big deal down here, so I’m glad I write these ahead of time. If all goes well, I won’t know who or where I am by the end of tomorrow. I would like to do something parade-ish for Shadowrun: New Orleans, something like the Final Fantasy VIII assassination, but man…scripting that out would be a goddamn nightmare.

Still. Ambitions.

I thought I was at Proof-of-Concept stage. I was wrong.

  • I finally began working with combats and more complex triggers. After getting frustrated at the finicky-ness of the Hong Kong editor, I finally managed to push through and get some real work done.
  • The game is now functional through the first combat. Also, I added some combat. There are currently two sequences, with plans for a gauntlet-style third to wrap up the prologue.
  • I fleshed out the dialogue in the prologue as well as added a new NPC just to vomit some more exposition at the character.
  • One of the guys at Shadowrun Identity made this custom loading screen for me; here’s what it looks like with the (current) prologue chapter loading text.
  • I began work on a new map. Don’t know if it’ll turn into anything, but I just enjoy architecture so I made stuff.

This is starting to look like a real project!

My goal for…probably next Tuesday, is to be able to link the prologue and the recruitment chapters together. This may take more time than I think, but if I can get up to that point, I’ll basically be at where “How We Live, How We Die” is at. And while I made fun of that UGC for being short, only now am I beginning to realize how much work actually goes into these things. Originally I wanted “Episode 1” ready to go, or at least in editing/playtesting phase, by end of March. I’m still wary about being able to make it there, depending on where I cut off Episode 1.

The good news is, while I’m sometimes a bit scattered, everything I’ve done seems to be largely able to be built off of. Meaning it’d be very unexpected for me to take a map or a scene and go, “AW FUCK IT” and toss it in the trash. This last map I worked on because I was kinda burnt out doing stuff I should be doing may be the first one, but it’s so fun I think so far that I’ll try to keep it if at all possible.

That’s it for this devlog. It feels like not a lot got done, in terms of reporting in, but this feels like a profound turning point in the development of this UGC. I feel far more confident with the editor than I ever have before. I wouldn’t dare declare “mastery” (if such a thing is even possible), but I like to think I’m doing all right.

Devblog—Feb 21, 2017

Last week, I talked a bit about thinking about the hub. So, I began building one.

The concept is fairly simple: a 3 “tier” superstructure which the player will bounce around and hit some further exterior sites like the railcar line that will take them to shadowruns, the bar that will serve as the safehouse, vendors, so on, and etcetera. So this week’s notes will be a little scarce, as most if not all of my efforts for the last 7 days have revolved around getting over my fear of exterior maps and working on this hub.

  • Built a “plaza” superstructure that serves an unknown function, but looks pretty. Still needs to be populated with ambient actors and other microstructure (vending machines, clutter, etc) but I like how it begins.
  • Built an “upper tier” area beginning that has a cool overlook. Will definitely use this for a dialogue at some point. It’s just too cool a view to not (though I have to change the fencing).
  • Built the rail car station. New Orleans is known for its streetcar lines (surely you’ve heard of the fictional “Streetcar Named Desire”). Hypothetically, in a cyberpunk future New Orleans, streetcars will be replaced by rail cars with larger capacity and faster function. As of right now, the rail car station is attached to an exterior map, but as work on that continues, that chunk may get relegated to a camera teleport, very similar to the HBS games; Subway ambience works better when it’s in a camera region, and going from exterior to interior almost always requires a transition to move smoothly.
  • Began work on the “street level” chunk of hub, which eventually will attach to the plaza, above. Shamelessly, I’m just stealing Berlin assets and rearranging them. However, the kickass thing I just did is make a facade. If you take a look at any pictures of New Orleans, you’ll see that buildings particularly in the French Quarter, but also in Treme and the Marigny, have these balconies held up by poles. I was able to achieve a similar effect in the Shadowrun editor.
  • Added Shadowrun Identity’s neon signs mod to the content pack’s dependencies, joining Geeked HK. This should allow me to absolutely overburden urban areas with sickening amounts of neon. I took a gander through the assets and have a few ideas about what to use, but haven’t directly implemented anything yet.

The big challenge theme of this week was dealing with sub z-level illusions.

As with everything in the Shadowrun: New Orleans build 0.x, a lot of what I’m doing is just experimenting. Doodling, basically, if such a thing exists in the Unity engine. And as always, I’m playing around with 3D effects and really pushing the system to its limits. Without the pressure of time, I can play around a lot more with some of these illusions, which means I uncover challenges and force myself to adapt.

In the Shadowrun editor, it’s technically y-level, but I come from Dwarf Fortress, so a horizontal plane will always be a “z-level” to me. I was using a sub-z-level wall asset from the Factory tileset, which can stack and make big, grand walls or pillars for illusions that go beneath the level that the actors are standing on. I used this in the original Rig concepts to make the big giant pillars that go down to sea level.

However, what I discovered is that these specific wall assets still function as walls on their footprint when it comes to breaking line of sight and blocking movement. In other words, while they looked like they were beneath the player or beneath the ground, they still stopped them from crossing bridges or seeing on the far side of them as though they were at the actor’s eye level.

As a result, I had to delete or move…basically all of them, and trade them out with Kowloon Walled City sub z-level assets, which do not break line of sight. This is a relatively minor and yet massively profound change. The KWC assets look like sides of buildings, sure. But they look like slums. And on the higher tiers, I don’t want it to look like slums, so I have to mask the assets with pipes and panels and other decor. Which is fine. I’m up to the challenge, but it is still a challenge for the time being, and it will eat time when the time comes to send the maps to “art”…which would also be me.

Let’s talk about plans for the future.

Obviously, this week is probably going to go into continuing work on the hub. My big dread fear is that my ambitions for once outstrip the capabilities of the engine, meaning I’ll try to build too much, too big, and push either the engine’s CPU or memory limits into the red. I mean, I want to add Rio’s hovel to this map, the bar I’ve been working on in the other screen. And considering the actors, dialogue, ambient actor patrol paths that I had set up in those locals, I’m just not sure it’s all possible, and I’ll probably have to make concessions somewhere at some point. I’m endeavoring to reuse assets wherever possible, but I fear as I begin to add actors that this will become a serious problem I’ll have to negotiate, and there just isn’t a rulebook to help me out.

I’ve at least got a checklist to work on. I know I need vendors with their own spaces, and I kind of have ideas for the ones I haven’t yet designed. So I have dreams and desires, which aren’t quite the same as a roadmap. But I’m committed to nonzero days, and that really helps.

Devblog—14 Feb 2017

Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit. I finally remembered (or realized) that I can open other content packs. Namely, the Hong Kong ones.

Yes, I’m an idiot sometimes. You can be too, I’m sure, so shush. But now that I’m going back and looking at how HBS set up their variables and conversations, this opens up all new paths to me. I’m not going to say it’s brilliant because, hey, they got paid to figure this shit out and had teams and training and probably an education, and here I am, a snot-nosed writer crapping this thing out between bouts of shifty employment and coughing fits. This is a gold mine of potential for me. Writing, I can do. Editing, I can do even better. Scripting, on the other hand…I’m like a pimply virgin at a titty bar. Everything’s new and exciting and I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing but I’m trying and at the same time I’m sure there’s a hundred more efficient ways to go about it.

Anyways, on to progress report.

  • I’ve found that by maximizing the editor and undocking the scene data menu while working with it, I can greatly increase the editor’s stability. This is a huge deal, working on a Mac. There are still some things that will unquestionably crash the editor (trying to write inspection text is the big one) that I’ll probably need to still find a workaround for, but still, this adds significantly better functionality.
  • I created a new sub-environment, and with it, a new character. It’s only two rooms and a hallways, but I’m quite happy with how they turned out, minus lighting, and I’ll just never be happy with lighting, I’m afraid.

It won’t be a full environment on its own; just a side-room kind of area off the hub map, whatever that turns out to be. Like Club 88 for Hong Kong…only smaller, with just enough room for the tech vendor and maybe one other NPC.

  • Work on the bar has stalled, though I’ve made major progress from what it looked like a week ago.
    • I scripted a cute little “tripwire” for a holographic “clothing advisory warning” that “blocks” the way from the front bar to the seedier dance club in the back. When the player runs through the hologram, it sort of crackles and fizzles. It’s not the best set of vfx, but it’s what I’ve got to work with and I like it.
  • I’m trying to mix interior and exterior environments, which I understand that one shouldn’t do, but until I beat my head against this brick wall a little longer, I’m still gonna try it. I think there’s a clear enough transition point, but I may want a playtester or two as the map gets closer to fruition just to make sure others see what I see and I’m not just seeing what I want to see. Illusion is everything in this system. But the human brain—imagination—must do a lot of the work.
  • I’m very likely absolutely going to have to rework dialogues for Cain’s secretary and Thibaut. And probably Cain. This wasn’t an unforeseen probability. Discovering how HBS does dialogue opened new paths to dialogue routing I hadn’t considered before. The good news is that I don’t have to rewrite the dialogue so much as reformat it. A lot of cutting and pasting, then running it through tests. Tests, tests, more tests.

In other news, I spilled my first cup of coffee on collected notes. I keep my laptop elevated so it wasn’t at risk of shorting. But now my notes are all coffee-stained. Like a true writer!

So, the new character’s name is Rio. He’s a dwarf, a tech vendor , and one of the first people the Runner will have contact with after beginning their first major “meta” quest. Rio runs something like a “secondhand tech shop” for people who know where to find him.

Story/dialogue-wise, Rio offers something of a mixture between Maximum Law and Maliit Holyey. Being one of the few characters that knows of the Runner’s law enforcement affiliation, he’ll serve as a link back to the Runner’s “other life.” His name is drawn from the Naval Officer position…think Goose, from Top Gun. This is a character who’s supposed to be confidante to the player character, more than just a tech vendor. Of course, the player has every choice beyond perhaps the first one to interact with them or not, but they should have some rich exposition to drop on the player.

Let’s talk about future plans.

As I continue to work on the story (and steal ideas from other, better stories), I keep revisiting the idea of giving the player an abode. As in, their own place, personal. The player character hasn’t had a true private space in a HBS game since Shadowrun: Returns. Originally, I’d planned to have Cain liquidate their assets and put them in blind trust during their time in 101, forcing them to find a flophouse somewhere in the Quarter (or wherever I decided the hub to be).

But the more I think about it, the more I think a personal abode in somewhere like Algiers could be incredibly useful in multiple areas of the story. It gives me a place to throw the player character between the prologue and meeting Cain. It also illustrates the life of a mid-class citizen compared to the gutter.

I am trying to figure out where I want the hub to be, and what I want it to be. Dragonfall and Hong Kong both used fictional neighborhoods. I may decide to do the same, because replication of something like the French Quarter in the HBS engine would be a Herculean task, but creating a place like the Kreuzbasar or Heoi and fitting “New Orleans” into it with actors, ambience, and atmosphere, should be a lot simpler. More on that next week, I hope.

Stay frosty, friends.

Devblog—7 Feb 2017

I added a character named Thibaut to the Hightower map, mostly to give me practice on creating secondary goals, working on the fine art of branching dialogue paths, how to open up a conversation to a branching Q&A session and what to do if at any point the player walks away and then wants to come back and ask questions again, and stuff like that.

I think I wound up making a lot more work for myself, as the entire dialogue path start to finish took roughly 6 hours. In an office environment, working 8-hour days, this might not be a problem. But if I’m only putting 1-2 hours into this project a day, that’s simply unacceptable.

Thibaut’s a fun character. He’s a cajun drone mechanic for the New Orleans Police Service, one of hopefully a few characters that will utilize the traditional N’awlins greeting of “Where y’at?” At one point, I thought people were pulling my leg and that New Orleanders didn’t really say that, until I wound up wandering the city one weird day with a concierge friend of mine and that’s precisely how he greeted others and was in turn greeted by them.

Fun fact, I studied accents in college. I like to think I’m pretty good at them…at least, the ones I studied. Creole, Cajun, and Creole-Cajun (all different accents) I did not study and am in fact terrible at.

Thibaut’s working on a security drone called Tyke, who has a sort of Superintendent (Halo:ODST) speech pattern, but his auxiliary logic core is overheating and so he rarely says the right thing for what he wants to say, and I unknowingly created a sort of pirate-parrot kind of relationship between Thibaut and Tyke.

Chatting with Thibaut will wind up yielding the option to help him out in fixing Tyke for some karma, and hopefully a chuckle or two. I hate options that are only limited to Drone Control, so I added a few of the rarer-utilized Etiquettes as well.

The rest of the week went into brushing up the receptionist and Assistant Director Cain’s dialogue, and fiddling with the lights on the map. I found out that taking off Fog of War actually, uh, works, and makes a noticeable difference. Who knew? Since the Hightower is, at least at this point, friendly territory, I’m taking off Fog of War, but I have to be doubly vigilant that the skyline then doesn’t bleed out into nothing, and I may need to rebuild the sides of the skyscraper itself to complete the illusion.

Unfortunately, that’s about it for what got done this week. Fortunately, I guess, I set a realistic goal for myself. I wanted the Hightower scene to be 90% done by today, and I feel like that’s about where I got it. It’s ready for final touches, which I’ll apply when I can start linking scenes together. Final touches will consist of making sure the dialogue is all still in sync with the story as a whole, adding some ambient actors that don’t speak, maybe giving one or two props an inspection interaction, and then adding story variable flags and scene transition stuff.

So, let’s talk about the future!

Storyline-wise, I’m in a bit of a pickle. I want a second female lead NPC.

The idea came to me at some point during the week, when I was figuring out what I want to do for this week’s Tuesday deadline. And it intrigues me. As writers, we all get into these habits, right? I have an idea about a female character, as many writers do. As I’m a dude, I’m not even going to pretend like I don’t have subconscious biases and preconceived notions about female characters in storytelling and literature. A second female character would be an immense challenge, because I’d have to distinguish her enough from the character I already have envisioned; I wouldn’t have someone I could lump all things “WOMAN” onto.

I was thinking back to Final Fantasy VII, how you have this juxtaposition between Tifa and Aerith, and how Tifa in her own right broke a lot of conventions by being a martial artist. While these days you can’t get away from the women = healer trope in video games, creating a character like Tifa opens up a world of opportunity along with the significant challenge of splitting one character into two and keeping both of them, well, interesting. Also, it could be one of the few (let’s be real: one of the only) Adept-based NPC crew, though I have to admit that part of me is worried that there’s a good reason why HBS never made an adept crewmate.

The more I think about it, the more I like this idea of a Tifa character. The trouble is I don’t have a backstory for her. With the main NPC + female lieutenant I had already planned for, I know generally who they are, what their interests are, what their relationship to one another is. Adding in this other character feels really challenging and totally out of left field.

The good news is I don’t have to make a final decision now.

My goal for next week is to work on the bar, which will first be seen immediately after the Hightower—assuming the player doesn’t go for the Early End.

I think I finally have an idea in my head as to what it will look like, finished, and it’ll be gloriously New Orleans. Right now, I’m thinking of re-naming it La Maison des Moineaux—”The House of Sparrows”. Perceptive folks will note that’s the name of one very important song in the Hong Kong soundtrack.

I’m just not convinced it’s a great name for a bar/strip club/whorehouse/house of shadows.

Blog—”You Have To” vs. “I Want To”

While cooking dinner, I (re)watched the Sequelitis episode on The Legend of Zelda. And, I mean, he’s right. About pretty much everything he said, including Ocarina of Time being mind-blowingly awesome at the time of its release, despite all of its now objectively clear flaws.

The reason I bring this up is because what Arin (“Egoraptor”) mentions has a lot to do with game design. What makes a game “good” and “fun,” and what’s the difference between actual difficulty and illusory difficulty? What’s the difference between illusory difficulty and hype? And most importantly, how can I work these things into Shadowrun: New Orleans, a game far more reliant on text, and separating combat and story/exploration phases of the game?

I want to note: the SR:R engine isn’t designed to be an exploration game. In fact, I feel like one of my criticisms of Dragonfall, the Director’s Cut, is that it front-loads almost all of its missions right out of the gate. You get back from taking in Blitz and you’re flooded with requests from Gunari, the sewer guys, the doctor, the anti-Humanis run. You can be Crew Level 3 or even 4 before you ever go on an “actual” Shadowrun. With all the new content in the DC, you can be at 40,000+ nuyen of your 50,000 for the Alice fund having barely touched the mission computer. And that feels weird. Maybe players like that much freedom, but I feel like the protagonist in the DC suffered a bit much from what I call “Space Jesus Syndrome”.

To explain what I mean, we have to go looking at another RPG lauded for its story, which largely separates its game largely into “combat” and “non-combat” areas.

I’m talkin’ Mass Effect 2.

Mass Effect 2 is a game built on “optional” side quests. Every single one of your crew members, even the DLC addons, has a thing that they absolutely cannot solve without the presence of the great Commander Shepard. And it makes the game feel less like you’re going on this epic space adventure and more like, “I’m Commander Shepard and I’m here to deal with your shit so we can move on with the story.”

For the record, because I know I’ve already pissed off someone reading this, I fucking loved ME2. But that doesn’t mean it was perfect, and I’m afraid Andromeda is going to fall into the same pitfall that Skyward Sword did after Ocarina of Time, and it is in my interest as a level designer and story writer to isolate the problem so I do not make it.

So what does this have to do with Dragonfall?

I’m just gonna come out and say it: I liked Dragonfall when Glory didn’t have a loyalty mission. I liked Glory’s mission, don’t get me wrong. I think it was interesting and well-designed, and I commend the writers on having variable endings for it, as well as an actual puzzle with difficulty and morality strewn about it. I hated that Glory had a mission. Maybe that feels weird, and I know a lot of people will disagree with me, but in the end of DLC Dragonfall, when everyone’s doing their “gather ’round, team, yeah!” happily-ever-after shit, Glory’s the one who’s like, “I’m out.” And everyone’s like, “Bwuh?” And if you talked to Glory and learned about her, you’re okay with this. You know she’s got shit on her plate, and so you say, “If you need me, call.” There’s an understanding. A respect. There’s also a story beyond the scope of the protagonist. The world feels bigger than them, and the story, the Dragonfall arc for the protagonist—with that crew and that problem…it’s done.

Here’s where you say, “Well, if you don’t like it, don’t do it.”

Peter Parker from the latest Civil War movie sums up my response to that pretty succinctly, but I’m going to alter some words to make it fit my point a little better:

If you’re given a choice to help someone, and you don’t, and something bad happens to them, it’s effectively your fault.

You can’t set up Glory’s mission like it is in the Director’s Cut and then expect a player to turn it down. That’s like how, in Mass Effect 2, you can’t expect players who know how to beat the suicide mission with no casualties to do anything less than that save for morbid curiosity. At that point you’re not making choices; you’re doing chores. It’s no longer about what a player wants to do, but has to do to achieve the objectively optimal ending.

I feel like it cheapens characters’ independence when all of them have a thing that they need Fearless Leader to help them out with.

Introducing variables like the ones available for Glory’s resolution also means you’ve just introduced unnecessary variables should you want to produce later content. My biggest criticism with Mass Effect 2 is that it forced the writing of Mass Effect 3 into a series of cut-and-paste dialogue read by one of two voice actors, then bragged about how there was more dialogue in their game than any other in history. And while that’s also true about Mass Effect 1 to 2 with Wrex and the Virmire Survivor, those were isolated scenes, not 90% of the fucking game.

Let’s say I wanted to put Glory in my UGC. I don’t, but hypothetically, let’s say I did. In the pre-Director’s Cut Dragonfall, you know where she’s going and what she’s after. She has a clear motivation.

Side note: You want to know what makes characters feel both real and interesting? It’s very simple: make them want something. And I use that word specifically. Characters have both wants and needs, just like real people, and while many times those things overlap, it’s wants that make people, from real humans and fictional beings, absolutely fascinating. Whether it’s a good cup of coffee, or a strawberry pastry, or a kiss from a boy, or a million dollars; sometimes it’s absurdly petty things, but those are the things friends and audiences latch on to. When Glory wanted to pursue Harrow, but couldn’t because of this big ole dragon thing happening, she was more fascinating than the Glory who needed that and had that shit taken care of for her.

Anyways, if I wanted to, I could achieve enough of an understanding to put Glory in a UGC post-Dragonfall, and if I stuck to that understanding, most if not anyone who played that UGC would say, “Yep, that’s the Glory I know and remember.” But by adding the variable outcomes of her loyalty quest, someone could write Glory and another person could play it and say, “But that’s not how Glory turned out in my Dragonfall.” You could write multiple versions of the scene, sure, but that brings us back to the problem of ME3—you just made more work for yourself. Basically double.

Now, I’m not saying characters or stories should always be written with sequels or stuff in mind, but I will say that I think a player’s imagination serves them better than any reality ever could. I admitted earlier that I liked Glory’s mission, and I’ll stick to that. But there was a wonder back before the DC, an anticipation. Again, there was this feeling that the world was bigger than the player character, and it lost some of that when Glory and Eiger got their loyalty missions.

Surely, almost any game with a narrative arc is going to have an instance of “You need to…” at some point. Probably multiple. But I do agree when Egoraptor says that the game should be forward propelled by the player saying “I want to kill bad guys. I want to be a hero (or a villain, depending on how you look at it). I want to go there. Do that.” And it’s my job to not block them. I’m going to get a bit into the puzzler’s paradox in a later post, and so I’ll leave this here for now. But think about that.

If you want to, I mean.