Development Blog

Together in the Dark Postmortem

Our goal with Together in the Dark was to create a unique atmospheric game where co-op and voice chat were central mechanics. We wanted to create this ambiance that would make the players really feel like they were the last two people on a dying space station and all they had left was each other.

Looking back on it now, we were able accomplish that goal very well. The work and effort put forth by the team was phenomenal, exceptional really considering the brief time we had to work on the project. In just two weeks we bonded as a team quickly and were able to make a very solid gaming experience. Like any projects, we had our fair share of trials and tribulations but we got through them and created a finished product that we are all very proud of.

There were many things that went well and a few things that went bad. There were also a few more avenues we would have liked to explore had we had more than two weeks to work on the game.

What Went Well

  1. Well Defined Mechanics – I alluded to this in my previous posts, but one of the best things we did in the early stages of the development process was iron out the mechanics early on. We spent a great deal of time in brainstorming sessions and meetings in the first few days of the project making absolutely sure that everyone was in agreement with the mechanics and that everyone was on the same page.

    During our meetings we made sure that any of the mechanics we came up with matched the theme we were going for. We really wanted this unique, tense-filled environment where you had to completely rely on someone else for survival.

    So as we thought of new ideas, we made sure they fit that central theme. By doing this we were able to include mechanics and features that helped shape the environment and the mood of the game even further. From the limited talk time, to the draining batteries and dimming light, a lot of the mechanics just fit in perfectly with the central theme. After the first week, we added in the terminal passcode feature which added even more depth as now the players had to rely on each other even more than they did before.

    If I had to choose what I thought was the biggest success in Together in the Dark, this would be it. Our well-focused mechanics were invaluable.

  2. Lot of Depth – For a two week flash game, our project had an amazing level of depth. There was two player co-op, voice-chat (via Ventrilo), a security code terminal that took user input, the dimming light mechanic, the losing talk time, and the concept of the landmarks indicating areas of danger. It had great artwork, fitting sound effects and background music, and even three levels for each player.

  3. Great Team Effort – I have mentioned this one so many times that it needs no real further explanation. I could not thank my team enough for the hard work on this project. We gelled really well and put forth a great product. Everyone completed their work on time and it was of very high quality. Everyone worked very well together and there were never any issues amongst us. Everyone was attentive at meetings and everyone got a say in what made it into the game and what didn’t. We were almost always on the same page during the project.

  4. Good Showmanship – One of the interesting things we learned is that a pretty solid and fun presentation certainly goes a long way to making your game look a lot better. During both our presentations, thanks to the voice chat mechanic, we were able to have a lot of fun talking to each other as we tried to get through the level. Jerad was able to say several witty lines and the crowd really enjoyed the fun banter as we worked together to get through a level.

  5. Consistent Artwork – I have shared various screenshots of the game as well as some of the artwork, and needless to say, it was very great artwork. One of the best parts about it thought was that it was always consistent, as if Luke and Li were on the same wave-length. The work they put out always seemed to fit so nicely together. Luke would make new tiles and then Li would add more objects and they seemingly always fit nicely together. They did an excellent job on the artwork for the game.

  6. Powerful Programming – We asked a lot out of Jerad and he came through for us in a big way. We asked for some pretty complicated stuff and he had very little experience with Flash and Action Script 3 prior to this project. But he picked it up in cat-like speed and got the game up and running quickly allowing us to constantly add and tweak as we saw fit. He implemented most of our ideas pretty seamlessly. Chris was also able to help out a lot and we were able to implement extra features.

What Went Bad

During the postmortem amongst ourselves, we had very little to say for what went bad. We jokingly added in silly stuff simply because we didn’t have much else to put in there. A diet-coke instead of a Dr. Pepper and no spicy chicken burritos at Taco Bell topped the list early on.

Joking aside, we did eventually figure out a few areas that we felt could have gone better.

  1. Constant Frame Rate Issues – Frame rate issues plagued us throughout the project. We struggled with it throughout the entire development process and Jerad did all he could to tweak it. Thankfully by the final presentation we were able to get a pretty solid working frame rate. But even then, when you walked into certain heavily populated areas that had a lot of animated tiles, the frame rate would start to drop.

  2. Low Play testing Time – This one concerned us a lot actually. Due to the complex nature of the co-op mechanic and the voice-chat via Ventrilo, it was really hard to get play testing sessions set up for the game. So we weren’t able to do quite as much play testing as we would have liked. We would have really liked to get a lot more feedback from other classmates.

  3. Late Maps – This is partially the cause for the low play testing time. It took us a little while to get the level concepts finalized and put into the game with the proper new art assets and objects. The levels made it into the final game just fine, but we had to rush a bit and we really wanted more time to explore some new options.

What We Would Have Added

There are several ideas we had throughout the project that we really wanted to get into the final game but were not able to. Even in two week prototypes one huge thing you learn is that you will always feel that way. You always wish you could get more into the game. Below are a few more things we would have added had we had another week to work on the game.

  1. Scripted Events – One of the key ideas we had to increase suspense and tension was to create various scripted events in the levels. For example, we wanted to create one level where you would have to find various switches that you would have to turn off to disable the core reactor. If you did not find them in time, the entire space station would implode. This would have added an even greater sense of urgency.

  2. Sound Distortion – We tossed around a variety of ideas in terms of distorting the com chatter. We definitely wanted to include white noise and static to the chat to make it seem more realistic and believable. We also talked about playing with the pitch of the voice as well.

  3. Opening Tutorial – One of things we thought about doing was adding a scripted tutorial. We wanted the space station to be lit at first, and then have it go dark. From there the game would tell you how to move around the dark area, would show you how to talk via voice chat, and would discuss the map mechanic. Also, it would have showed you a landmark and discussed danger tiles. It would have also talked about datapads, the security code, and extra batteries.

  4. Twist Ending – We really wanted a twist ending. With more time we would have definitely gotten this in. First off, we wanted all of the levels to be interconnecting. We wanted each level to flow together and then the final level would be the escape pod door. In the final version of the game however, at the end of each level you escaped via the pod.

    If we could have gotten the interconnecting levels, one of the ideas we discussed was to have the players think that there were two pods the whole time, but then later at the very end we would have informed them that there was actually only one left. We also thought about a twist where there was actually never a second person at all. The entire time the crewmember was delusional due to the gamma radiation. They had the right map all along and they were simply talking to another personality.

Together in the Dark – Week 2

Before I begin this post, you can play Together in the Dark by clicking on the link at the end of the post. Please be aware that with it being a prototype, there is no voice chat built into the game. You can simulate it though by either simply being in the same room, or by using Skype or Ventrilo.

Last time, I discussed the first week of RPP. I talked about how well my team worked together and I briefly discussed our game Together in the Dark. Now, Round 1 of RPP is complete and our game is finished. We had our final presentation on Tuesday and it went very well.

With this post, I am going to discuss the additions and changes we made to the game in the past week. But before I do that, I want to briefly discuss the biggest take-away I had from the first round of RPP.

Even though the game we worked on was just a two-week Flash prototype, a great amount of work went into this game. There are so many factors you have to consider and it is a constant challenge. You have to manage everyone’s class schedules, homework assignments, personal responsibilities and more. And the entire time you are trying to create an amazing game that inherently comes with dozens of various challenges like level design, consistency, game mechanics, and debugging.

It is a rare challenge though, because no matter how busy the first round of RPP got, or how stressful it became, I did not want to be anywhere else. I mean how often does one get the chance to make a video game? I am pretty sure most of us at FIEA are reminded on a daily basis just how awesome this can be.

These past few weeks, I would wake up in the morning and get mad at myself for taking too long to get into FIEA. Every day I wanted to get in and get straight to work. On my way home after an 18-hour workday, I am constantly thinking of new ideas and can’t wait to come back tomorrow and implement them. It is so very rare to find that. I can’t wait until Tuesday when this process starts all over again with a new game, and a new team.

With that said, I will move on to a very nerdy, detailed discussion of our game.

After Interim, we had plans to integrate a new mechanic, as well as fix and improve on the systems we had already in place. Before implementing our new mechanic, we first wanted to fix the dimming light graphic. Originally, we had this wonderful gradient light that dimmed and looked great. However, we had to get rid of that prior to Interim because it created massive frame rate issues. For Interim, we replaced it with just a simple circular cut-out.

This week, Jerad found a new method of implementing the gradient light circle. While the original circle used for Interim was functional, this new gradient lighted circle looked a lot better. It gave the light source a more realistic feel that better fit the atmosphere.

Once the light was fixed, we began work on our new mechanic. Last week we became concerned with a potential problem. Since both players have a map and the location of the exit, what was stopping them from just instantly darting to the exit without ever exploring the rest of the map?

To correct this problem, we came up with this idea of including datapads and a security code. We wanted to place datapads throughout the level that players had to obtain in order to advance the game. We did not have time to implement this for Interim, so it was one of our main focuses for this week.

These datapads contain a single letter of the security override code that would open the door to the next level. Once player 1 collected their two datapads, they would have two characters of the code (the codes being alphanumeric). They would then need the help of player 2 to get the rest of the code. By doing this, both players had to work together to find the datapads and get the complete code, otherwise they would not be able to leave the level.

Once they had the code, the players would go towards the exit and a terminal would appear. To open the exit door, the players would have to enter in the code they have collected together. If the player were to incorrectly enter the code three times, they would be killed by the computer via our cool digitization death animation. This was put into place to discourage players from trying to guess the code.

This new mechanic actually fixed two of our main concerns. First, it made it so the player had to navigate the entire map. They had to find these datapads in order to proceed. Secondly, it fixed a concern we had regarding how the players could play the game. We were worried that without some constraint binding their fates together, one player could get help from the other player, finish the level, and then never help the other in return. We wanted them to have to rely on each the entire way to get through the level.

With great work from Jerad and Chris, we were able to smoothly get this mechanic in the game. Luke also did a terrific job creating a cool looking graphics for the terminal.

From there, the last thing we set out to do was create more levels. We wanted a total of three levels for each player, so six total levels. I created six level concepts (plus the two I created for the Interim presentation) and we chose four of them. Each level increased the challenge and added in new surprises.

To help populate these new levels, Li built several new objects. These new objects really helped flesh out the station even more. We now had labs, mess halls, an armory, and various other rooms that you would expect to see in a normal, lived-in space station.

Another exciting addition this week was Jerad’s implementation of an XML file. Jerad created a quick and easy XML file that allowed me and Chris to quickly take the level designs and populate them with batteries, death tiles, and datapads. Instead of having to place them one-by-one in each level, we opened up the XML file, found out at what coordinates we wanted to place the object, and we put them in the XML file.

When the level was loaded, it would call the XML file and place all necessary objects in the level. Through this XML file, we were able to quickly add the functionality of the death tiles that we did not have in place for Interim. It allowed us to take Luke’s great death animations and quickly add tiles to call them when we wanted the player to perish. The XML file really gave us control of creating, editing and populating levels with ease.

From there, we touched up the game as best possible. We fixed bugs when we found them, and polished the game as best we could. We added in 8-bit intro and victory music to match this old school, sci-fi theme. We also added in instructions, the user interface to show the player what letters of the code they had, a victory animation screen, and finally a credits page for the main screen.

Once again, throughout this process, the team worked seamlessly together. Everyone completed their work on time, was attentive at meetings, and we honestly had fun as a team. We gelled very well. I couldn’t be happier with how we worked together as a team and we are very proud of the game we have completed.

In the next few days, I will probably write up a post-mortem for Together in the Dark. I will discuss our initial goals, how well we felt we reached those goals, and what we would do further with the game if we had more time.

Until then, here are some more screenshots!

You can also play the FULL game by clicking here

Screenshot of Player 2 Screenshot of Level 3 Map Schematic
Screenshot of Input Terminal Instructions Screen
Credits Screen

RPP Round 1 – Interim Update

The first week of Round 1 for Rapid Prototype Production (RPP) has come and gone. Each Round of RPP (there are 5) has a different theme and Round 1’s theme is the “Fun Factor.” Our goal is to make sure our game adheres to various guidelines on what actually makes a game fun. During class, we discussed the ingredients of “Fun Soup.” The first ingredient for a fun game: goals. Goals are something the player aims to achieve, such as winning the level or defeating an enemy. From there, you need to give the player feedback. You need to continually update them on the progress they have made throughout the game, and they need to know how well they are doing.

The last ingredient is controlling a concept called Flow. This is the hardest part as designers as we have to balance the game so that it never gets boring and never gets frustrating. We have to constantly tweak and iterate to make sure the game never falls out of this smooth flow. If the game gets too frustrating, then it is no longer fun. The same goes for boring. The goal is to stay in that flow that is between bored and frustrated. When those three ingredients are in place, you have a great foundation for a fun game.

With fun as the goal, we got put into our teams and got to work. For the past week I have had nothing but good experiences with my team and our game. I couldn’t be happier with how we have progressed. We had our interim presentation yesterday and it was outstanding. We received extremely positive feedback for our game from both the instructor, Ron Weaver, and from our fellow Cohort members. It was a great feeling for the team to receive such high praise.

We are not resting on our laurels however. We are still eager to continue working on our game and we are looking forward to further iterating it in the coming week. I am personally also looking forward to seeing how the other groups iterate their games. The games presented yesterday were all amazing and I think as a cohort we are getting into our groove now and I cannot wait to see what this talented cohort can produce. I expect great things from all of us.

With that said, I would like to thank my team for their hard work this week. Our artists Luke Gamble and Li Fan completed amazing artwork at amazing speeds and I could not ask for better work in the first week. Chris Darin, a fellow producer, was instrumental in helping me and the group get all of our ideas together and making sure our core mechanics were in place. Chris also created the nifty Intro screen for our game and he aided our programmer when needed. Finally, our programmer, Jerad Dunn, worked tirelessly to get everything working seamlessly.

The entire team worked very well together as we bounced ideas off each other until we came to a consensus on the direction of the game and how we wanted to core mechanics to work. We ironed out these mechanics in great detail early on and this really helped as we began working. With this tight focus and clearly defined mechanics, we were able to make art assets quickly and we were able to implement our ideas efficiently since everyone was on the same page. No one was asking why we needed these assets or how we were doing certain aspects. Having this consensus and unity was instrumental to our success in the first week.

Since we worked so well together, everyone’s tasks were made that much easier. I know that my individual tasks were made a lot easier because I knew exactly what the team was looking for in terms of level design and sound effects. I was able to come up with those really quickly as I knew what they were expecting since we had such well defined mechanics. This also freed up time for me to work on the scheduling and note keeping. Everyone fully contributed to our game and never once did we have any issues with waiting for work to be completed. Everyone consistently had everything ready to go when it came time to meet. We were able to stick to our schedule and it was definitely exciting to see how well we worked together.

Now finally, I will spend a little time discussing the game. Our game, Together in the Dark, is a very ambitious game for a two-week Flash prototype. Together in the Dark is a two-player, co-operative experience that uses voice chat. The game takes place in a damaged space station where only two crew members are left. The players control those two crew members. Their goal is to communicate via voice chat in order to help each other get out of this dying space station. The space station is dark and the only visible light is coming from the space suit’s headlight. As such, the players cannot clearly see the dangers that surround them.

This is where the co-op comes into play. Both players have a map that represents the other player’s level. Basically, player 1 has a copy of player 2’s map and vice-versa. To get through the level, player 1 will need player 2’s help to avoid dangerous areas. The dangerous areas are easily detectable due to certain landmarks. This mimics sort of a Mine Sweeper mechanic where you see indicators of danger, but do not know exactly which tiles are deadly.

If you do not work together, and the player lands on a bad tile, it is game over. So, player 1 may be moving around their level and they might notice a flammable barrel. This indicates to the player that there is danger in the vicinity, but they do not know exactly where. They can then relay that information to player 2 who has the ability to call up Player 1’s map. Player 2, using this copy of the map, can see the exact locations of these dangerous tiles on player 1’s level and they can help them navigate accordingly.

One of the challenges comes from the fact that the players are limited on how much they can talk. The more the players communicate, the faster they drain the power pack of the suit. If they talk too much, the light on their suit will go out completely and they will lose the ability to see much at all. They will also lose the ability to communicate. As such, the players must work together quickly to get through their respective levels. They can also help each other find more batteries to increase the duration of the light and talk time. The end objective is to completely navigate the space station and escape via the escape pods.

That is the brief synopsis of the game. It should be noted that since it is supposed to be a prototype, we merely used Skype to control the voice chat and we mimicked networking by having both players levels built into the game. We never once touched networking code or looked at voice-chat via Flash. For the next week, we will continue to work on the game, improving it in various ways. We will then present our final version of the game next Tuesday. I will post more updates when the time comes. Now, without further ado, here is some of the artwork for the game, and a few screenshots of the game as well. Enjoy!

Artwork for Together in the Dark

Together in the Dark Intro Screen

Landmark Screen Shot

Battery Screenshot

Screenshot of the Map Mechanic

A Week in the Life

Week one of FIEA is complete and I thought it a prudent time to make my first post as an official student of FIEA!

First, I can’t thank Cohort 6 enough for their wonderful welcome. Us 7s were undoubtedly nervous in our first week as we tried to get our bearings straight. The 6s were gracious enough to answer questions and came by and talked to us on several occasions throughout the week. They welcomed us to the FIEA family with open arms. It was great to get a chance to pick their brains once again. I look forward to our continued discussions. I wish the best of luck to those from Cohort 6 who are venturing out into the industry in the coming days.

The best part of the first week was getting to know everyone. Prior to this week I had met roughly half the cohort through pre-FIEA gatherings, but even after orientation I still had not gotten the chance to meet everyone. Throughout this week I got a chance to talk to almost everyone in Cohort 7. We are an eclectic group and I cannot wait for next week when we start making our first Flash games for Rapid Prototype Production. I think with our varied backgrounds we will come up with excellent ideas. I cannot wait to see what we can produce as a Cohort.

Being the first week, it was a relatively quiet, which was good as it allowed us to transition easily without feeling overwhelmed. Now that we have a week under a belt, and now that we have a slight idea of what is going on, we should be able to dive right into RPP. Even though it was the first week, there were still assignments to be completed.

The producers had to complete a Mind Map, a technique I have only completed once before. It was good to get a refresh. It also gave me the opportunity to learn a new piece of software called Mindjet MindManager. This program, which came lovingly pre-installed on our new shiny FIEA laptops, is pretty easy to use and pick up. It is a great tool to create a professional looking, functional mind map. I did my mind map on ninjas and got a bit carried away. I somehow was able to connect ninja with the food pyramid. Maybe that’s the next hit game? The main character could be a ninja who is frantically concerned about the food pyramid. No? Oh well. But I still enjoyed making the mind map nonetheless. You can check out my finished mind map by clicking here.

Also, the producers, after a healthy class discussion, and after reading an article written by our very own Rick Hall, had to complete a few exercises related to various immersion concepts. One of these concepts is called the OSV cycle. OSV or Observe, Speculate and receive Validation, is a cycle that if properly used can help increase immersion. Now what is immersion exactly? More often than not, it’s misunderstood. Poor misunderstood immersion. The lecture this week on immersion was very helpful in clearing up some of these misconceptions and I walked away with a much clearer and more functional definition of immersion.

Immersion can be described as something that greatly stimulates and grabs the attention of the brain. Typically immersion is seen in two lights. The first is more often associated to game play mechanics where the player feels the need to continue playing because the mechanics foster this desire to want to continually improve your performance. There is this competitive urge to keep pushing forward. The second light is related to realistic environments, characters, music and the overall atmosphere. The world the player is playing in feels real, or at least feels like a world that could conceivably exist. All factors make logical sense and are consistent. Overall, it was a fantastic discussion and I look forward to delving deeper into the concept of immersion in the near future.

This week, I was also able to sit in on the Art classes. This afforded me the opportunity to view some of their work firsthand. I was amazed by the work they did for their first assignment. For this assignment, the artists were tasked with choosing a game and making three pieces of character concept art that matched the style of the game they chose. On the second day of the art classes, we got a chance to view the concept art. Fabulous work would be an understatement. I was extremely impressed with some of the concept art and I cannot wait to get a chance to work with the talented artists we have in Cohort 7.

I of course cannot, in good faith, leave out the programmers now can I? They were busy this week taking pre-tests and catching up on math, action script and various other programming goodies. Hopefully they are rearing to go this upcoming week as a source tells me they start Assembly. I wish them the best of luck.

Well, unlike The Beatles, this post was more than just "A Day in the Life". I talked about a whole week of FIEA! I have enjoyed it so far, and I look forward to the week to come. Hopefully I can find some time to post an update on the progress of my first RPP game. I look forward to working with my upcoming team and I can’t wait to see what kind of game we can come up with. Next week should be exciting.

Passing of the Torch

Classes do not officially start for us Cohort 7 members until August 23rd, but yet in the last few days I have had the opportunity to learn and observe.

Friday, with about a dozen of my fellow classmates, I had the privilege of viewing the final presentations from Cohort 6. First of all, I have to applaud and congratulate all of Cohort 6. Their work was amazing. The games were stellar and the presentations we’re excellent. And on top of that, after the presentations, and various times throughout the past six months, they have been gracious enough to find time to help us Cohort 7 members understand what it is that we are about to undertake.

Back in January I was able to see the capstone games in their infancy. To see them transform into their complete final form was simply astonishing. To see how far Cohort 6 had taken their games in merely six months was quite honestly motivating. After viewing their presentations I wanted nothing more than to get to work. For what seems like my entire life I have sought out this opportunity, this one chance to do what I love. In the presentation room on Friday I saw firsthand work that can only truly be accomplished by those who share the same passions and dedication.

These presentations were not stuffy or boring. They were fun. They were enjoyable for the audience, and they were enjoyable for the presenters. By watching them you could see their dedication and passion towards their work. Work isn’t supposed to be fun, but it is when you love it and you could tell they did. It was honestly one of the few times in my life where I finally felt like I was in the right place. This is what I have wanted to do for most of my life and for some reason in that room Friday it finally seemed real. I was accepted into FIEA well over 8 months ago, but now it finally felt real.

Then came Saturday and I again had the chance to meet up with some of my fellow classmates as well as several Cohort 6 members. Us 7s had the chance to once again talk with the Cohort 6 members and learn a great deal of what to expect and we were given fantastic advice that will undoubtedly be very helpful in the months to come. In these past two days one could feel the torch being passed on. Cohort 6 has completed their hard work and now it’s our turn.

They have given us the advice and knowledge to help us on our way and now it is up to us Cohort 7 members to take that advice and set the bar even higher than Cohort 6. Will it be easy? Absolutely not. They set the bar at a Herculean height. But by being able to see their work, and their dedication, it only made me want to work that much harder. Not just for our sake but for theirs as well. I feel we owe it to them. FIEA on their resume will only grow to become an even greater strength by the work we do in the year to come. Such is the grand circle of things. The torch is passed on and it is now our responsibility to strengthen the FIEA name.

With the advice from Cohort 6 stowed and ready to go, I am ready to get to work. That bar must go higher. We have no choice Cohort 7. It is our duty.

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