Development Blog Archive - Q1 2006

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Read the latest on SiN Episodes straight from members of the development team!

March 22, 2006

Exciting times ahead. Emergence is barreling towards the finish line and preproduction for Episode 2 is starting to gear up. GDC is this week, which is very cool conference. The games industry has a few really big "events" � E3 being the most recognizable. GDC is a really different beast. E3 is all about the games, while GDC is all about development. Different mindsets, but both are very important for the industry.

One of the really cool facets of our current zeitgeist (yes, that's actually a word, and man-oh- man, it's even pretentious to look at) games, computers, and technology are becoming more and more mainstream. As this occurs, we're seeing more and more interesting technology that's tangential to the game industry � things that are not directly game focused, but might have ramifications on how perceive and play games in the future.

Related to this, I'm doing a hand-off for this particular Blog to Tom Mustaine, who had a very interesting experience with a company called IO2Technologies.

The floor is yours, Tom�

If you're like me, you are always looking in the "high tech gadgets" section of Wired magazine, or constantly searching the internet for stories about high tech devices of the future, from the next crazy PDA Phone to the next high definition display. About a year ago, an unbelievable video was released from the folks over at IO2technology, depicting what can only be described as a semi-holographic floating image of Google maps, where the user was using his hand to manipulate the Google maps interface. The video was amazing, it was like something straight out of Star Wars. My technolust now in full swing, I dug a little deeper in the IO2 webpage and came across their display device for the future, the Heliodisplay!

Click here to download a video showing SiN Episodes: Emergence characters running on the Heliodisplay.
The Heliodisplay projects video into mid-air using any standard computer input, so of course, my first thought was "What would SiN Episodes look like on this thing!" Recently, my question was answered, the guys at IO2 were kind enough to let me into their research and development facility and hook up SiN Episodes: Emergence to the Heliodisplay. The results have to be seen to be believed!

Watching Emergence on the Heliodisplay was a wild experience. The video is compelling, but doesn't really do it justice. I expect we'll see the Heliodisplays appearing all over the place in the future, first in trade-shows, then in retail, and finally at home. The applications are limitless.

Being the first game to run custom content on the Heliodisplay is quite a milestone for us, and I want to thank the guys at IO2 once again for giving us a peek at this awesome technology. I can't want to get my hands on one!

March 1, 2006

Using Context Look to Expand the Story

I wanted to take a little bit of time today and talk about one of our features, and how it relates to the story in Emergence.

Those of you who have been following the game closely have probably heard about our Context Look system. We haven't talked a whole lot about this thing, which is too bad, as it's actually pretty slick.

One of the things that's always problematic for games � FPS games in particular � is how to convey the story yet not interfere with the game play. This is tough because you have two different camps. You got the gamers that LOVE story and want to know everything, and you have the gamers that just want to blast things in the face. So, we came up with a system that lets us have the best of both worlds.

Like HL2, throughout Emergence, the player will encounter in-game choreographed scenes; these are the scenes that are "Mission Critical" to the story. Everything else, though, is completely optional. The Context Look system allows players that are interested in the deeper aspects of the story to dig in a little further, but allows players that just want to get on with the destruction to do exactly that.

The system works pretty much as you would imagine. All over the world are things that have associated dialog. If gamers look at one of these objects the Datacom will chirp, and if they want, they can activate the Datacom and get additional information.

Context Look elements go far beyond just the expected datapads or prop. We wanted to extended it to the characters as well, so if you stare at Jessica too long � well, she just might have something to say about it.

Now, given that the critical elements of the main storyline are conveyed through the choreographed scenes, what kind of information can a gamer expect to get through the Context Look system?

Ah� That's where it gets exciting. Just like great episodic television, like Lost or 24, SiN Episodes has an overarching storyline that stretches beyond any single episode. Expect lots (and I mean LOTS) of twists and turns in the future. I can tell you now, no one in the game world truly knows what Elexis is planning � and what she has done. But, just because none of the characters know, doesn't mean that YOU can't. Embedded within the Context Look elements are hints and clues. Some foreshadow events to come, some throw light on events that have already occurred. Many may not make sense� yet.

Each and every one of these pieces, though, has a purpose � each is a small piece that reveals a bit of the overall story tapestry. It will be interesting to see how gamers react to the elements they find; and even more interesting to see how everyone thinks they tie together.

February 23, 2006

It's official. We're Beta.

This is a very exciting time. As of Monday, we've shifted entirely to bug fixing and preparing to launch this thing.

It's been a hectic week as well. On Monday we had a company-wide playthrough of the entire game. Everyone was looking for problems and places we could add that last little bit of polish. I got back volumes of feedback, and the Design Team has been locked away for the past two days sorting through it all, prioritizing issues, and slamming stuff into the Bug Database.

The above paragraph might sound a bit like whining, but trust me, it's not. I was ecstatic at the feedback we got. As I've said before (ad nauseum by this point) the game we have right now is already great. All the feedback was just minor little things that we can do to really make it stellar.

Now, in an awkward segue from the game to the industry at large, I'm very excited about the idea of episodic gaming. Granted, I have a bias, but I think we're at the start of growing trend, and this same idea was espoused at DICE this year. Society is moving towards a "customized for me" sort of paradigm. Look at the popularity of iTunes, or the growing movement for a la carte cable channel selection. In more gaming relevant terms, you've got the phenomenal success of Steam, Xbox Live, and of course, the heavy weight precursor of customized games � Mods.

Episodic gaming, because of its faster turn around, offers the ability to react to consumer feedback (this has been talked about endlessly already) but it also offers flexibility to try new and really innovative ideas. I can't see this as anything but great for gamers, and it ties directly to the "customized for me" ideal I discussed above. Basically, it's giving all gamers more choice. Gamers can pick and choose titles, options, and gameplay that really appeals to them.

Now, I don't for a minute think that traditional full length games are going away. Nor would I want to. I'm a gamer, just as I'm a developer. I still want epic RPGs, large scope RTS games, and gorgeous, video-card melting, technology pushing FPS games. Just as movies and television provide entertainment in a complementary fashion, I see a similar balance unfolding between full length and episodic gaming as the episodic trend continues to unfold.

February 8, 2006

Well, hopefully by now you've seen the official Emergence video released today. There's some pretty tight stuff in there, and huge credit needs to go to Tom Mustaine for cranking with the crazy editing skills, and of course Zak Belica our resident sound and music genius.

The video shows much of the progress we've made since the shaky-cam CES videos. There's a lot more polish, nearly all the HL2 placeholder assets are gone, and the gameplay is much much tighter.

Of course, the video is still showing some footage from an older build of the game, in the time it's taken to get everything squared away with it, we've dumped in a phenomenal amount of additional content. Overall though, it's a pretty solid look at what we've got going.

We're days away from being content complete now, so the last few days and the next few days the game is going to be slammed with a deluge of additional assets as we get ready to lock down. Right now our big focus is on choreography sequences, skyboxes, and the little details that make the world feel more "real."

The exciting thing is that we're actually wrapping this thing up. Once we hit our content complete (aka Beta) milestone, all we'll be doing is balance tweaks, bug fixing, and prepping for release.

February 1, 2006

I want to talk a little bit about how one of our characters have evolved, both in terms of visuals and gameplay as the game has progressed.

We knew from the early design phases that we were going to need a rock solid human enemy to fight. Given the way the story was evolving, we zeroed in on Radek's mercenary army.


In early concepts we wanted to stay away from a traditional military look, so we started off with a stylized black combat outfit. We were still learning the tech at this point, so we weren't solid on what could and could not be pulled off easily so we went with something a little on the safe side.

We actually went forward with this concept, getting it modeled, skinned, and in game. You can even see it in some of our very early screenshots. But, like many things in game development, you often don't see the problems until you get an asset in the game -- Which leads to the key word of the day: iteration.

First off, we realized that the face mask wasn't working. So we made some adjustments and variations, finally landing on a black face mask, which was a marked improvement. As time went by and the environments began to get more fleshed out, we realized we had a much larger problem: Namely, the black combat suits made the mercs blend in with the back ground, making for a decidedly unfun combat experience. They were thus dubbed: Space Ninjas.


So, we went back to the concepting stage and started again. This time applying all the lessons learned from the first effort.

As you can see, this outfit is more military looking. In a fit of irony, the slight camouflage pattern actually makes them easier to see, which was exactly what we wanted.

Additionally, by this point, we had 3 primary styles of Mercenary, so we designed the outfit to allow for color coding. Trim and "pieces of flair" elements on the skin are specific colors based on the Mercenary type. It's a subtle thing, but given the strides we were making with Dynamic Difficulty, we wanted something that will help players pick out different enemies and be able to adapt their strategy to whatever they were facing.


We started with the basics. We wanted a mercenary to shoot at us; that came online very quickly, and we started iterating from there.

One of the first additions we made was the ability to "cap" the AI in the knees, forcing them to drop in place. To give you a little taste of the chaos, this feature was actually designed to help facilitate another, player-centric, feature we were prototyping. We ended up cutting the primary feature, but left "capping" because it was cool.

Next we began playing with cover behaviors. We actually have a good foundation in there now. The mercs are pretty smart, but this is one of the features I really want to push and expand on in upcoming episodes.

The helmet system came on a little while after. This is one of my personal favorites. Basically, as we've stated before, if you get a lot of head shots, the AI starts coming in wearing protective helmets. Of course, if you're a good shot, you can blow that off, which is really great player reward. I will say, as of yesterday, we've got a few more surprises up our sleeves for this system as well. I won't spill it here, but you guys will definitely be pleased.

Most of the merc behaviors(the ones described here and many others) are in place now. We're mostly fixing bugs and playing with their reactions. For example, after the shaky-cam footage at CES, we were inundated with feedback that our mercs weren't responsive enough to explosives. This was flagged as a bug, but do to all the great feedback we got, we took a long look at it, making sure we really solved the problem. One of the great strengths of episodic content is our ability to react to community feedback -- this is a great example of that.


It's amazing how much more you know about a project at the end of it than the beginning. While this is applicable to learning the tech, it's even more apt in terms of the project itself. The fact is, you have to start with something - your best guess - but you have to go in it knowing it's going to have to change. A game is an organic beast; it evolves, grows, and changes. As such, any assets you make at the beginning often times just won't quite fit when you get to the end. It's best if you just dive in knowing that, and keep yourself flexible. After all, in the end, it's about what's best for the game and the player.

January 25 , 2006

We're getting close.

For the most part, we have our game now. There's still some additional polish and tweaks that need to be done, a few assets still need to trickle in, and of course, we need to wipe out our bugs. At any rate the game is stable, looks great, and most importantly, is fun.

We had a lot of excellent coverage from our appearance at CES. We got a lot of great community feedback from the videos as well. The game has made significant progress since then. I think all but one or two of HL2 placeholders have been replaced with their final assets, we've done additional work on the AI and dynamic difficulty systems, and we're getting more and more of our choreography complete.

One of the things I'm getting real excited about is our music. Zak Belica, our sound and music genius, has been dropping in the new music tracks. The game is sounding fantastic. It always amazes me what a difference a good soundtrack makes, it adds to the overall atmosphere and helps accent the player emotions.

Right now, our major push is on finishing this thing, but small changes are still bubbling up. We're really trying to focus on those few places in the game that were just ?okay,? and push them until they're really fun. Thankfully, at this point, these changes are usually pretty minor, but the sum total of all the changes really adds up and increases the quality of the game.

Now that we're closing in on the end, I'm hoping to be able to update this blog a little more often. In the near future I plan to do some updates on the story, the writing process, and talk a little bit about our characters; so as the development winds down I'll be talking less and less about the process and more and more about the game itself.