Optimisation – Update #9

Every now and then one needs to pause cramming content into a game, take a step back and have a look how the game runs. There is a certain art to picking the right moment for doing that during the development process, as doing it too early might result in looking at the areas which have little real impact, and doing it too late might result having to fix or refactor a lot of existing content or technology, while struggling to work efficiently when the game runs in an unsatisfactory way.

This week this moment came for Elemental Enigma. The plan, from the very beginning, was for the game to be able to run at locked 60 FPS on fairly low-end devices, like laptops with Intel i3/AMD Ryzen 3 CPUs and integrated GPUs. The frame rate is to be locked, because there is little benefit to having an unlocked frame rate in 2D games without any vector graphics.

So far this method of taking a step back every couple of months has been very successful. There have been very few moments during the whole development process where the frame rate would consistently drop below 60. However with time as more things were being added (more foliage, more complicated particle effects, more objects in general, bigger maps, etc.) the frame rate started becoming less and less stable. So although the average frame rate was still 60 FPS, there were common, although short, drops. Which might not be a deal breaker during development, but would be absolutely unacceptable in the finished product.

Thankfully there are many tools, both 3rd party and created in-house, to address these kind of issues, to see which part of the game takes too many of computer resources.

After fiddling with these this week, addressing issues with how objects are queued for rendering, how Fog Of War is rendered and multiple others, most frame drops have been dealt with. It is satisfyingly solid, at least for the time being.

Elemental Enigma is not yet finished, this will still take considerable amount of time. And while new, more complicated content is being added, the game’s performance will be constantly monitored, so that even people wanting to play the game on older laptops, will be able to do that without any problems.

Cutscenes! – Update #8

Cutscenes have been a part of video games ever since they started having stories incorporated into them. Over the years their quality, fidelity and complexity has increased dramatically. Probably achieving it’s height during the golden age of FMV games in the 90s, when often gameplay was just a means to get you from a cutscene to a cutscene.

Although games are a fundamentally interactive medium and should follow the “play to don’t show” rule, cutscenes, even now, have a lot of utility. They are a great way to build up set pieces, or show the player consequences of their actions, or emphasise a payoff to player’s efforts.

They are also an interesting technical challenge. After all, one is trying to create a system in which the game does what usually would be done by the player, or do things that normally would not be possible in the game in the first place. That’s one of the reasons why so much has been written about Matinee in Unreal Engine and one of the first community questions regarding the Aurora Toolset (powering Neverwinter Nights) was: “How do we create cutscenes?”.

In essence: they are important in modern games.

They also will be important in Elemental Enigma. And although it’s a game that emphasises player choice first and foremost, certain non-interactive elements will be necessary to move the plot along, add some punch to narrative points and make the game world feel a bit more alive.

For this update it mostly means that the system for creating and running cutscenes has been polished up and tested, and a number of short ones are being created for the upcoming demo.

The way this system works is fairly unorthodox, as unlike most, cutscenes are not represented as a timeline, but a graph. That might make it more difficult to time-align events, but on the other hand it makes it easier to chain events that don’t have a certain duration (like ordering a character to walk to a location, when moving obstacles are involved).

So far the results are quite good, even quite complicated scenes are easy to create and test. More work is needed to determine what is the best way to integrate them into the actual game, but that is also being done.

Quests – Update #7

Quests tie all parts of an RPG together. They provide the motivation to keep playing as well as track the player’s progress through the game. Because they are so central, they can get quite complex.

This week more work has been done on the main quest for the demo. That means both creating the actual content, as well as making improvements to the system that manages it.

Quests in Elemental Enigma from the very beginning were represented as hierarchical graphs, a fairly natural way for branching narratives. The idea is to make as easy as possible to create a free form way for the player to progress, while still maintaining some structure.

Each quest is made up of multiple phases, which are moments in the game where the player needs to perform something. They can be very simple, as in – go get that item, or extremely complex having their own internal set of conditions and steps.

Complex quest phases can be made clearer by having sub-quests – smaller quests, that are to help the player go through an individual phase. The can be tracked in the game separately. And, at least in theory, sub-quests can have their own sub-quests, if needed. Making it a multilayered hierarchy.

As mentioned in the previous quest update, there are multiple ways to create Narrative Systems and processes with which to create Quests. It’s usually best to tailor the system to a kind of game one is trying to make. Linear jRPGs will have different needs to Open-World Immersive RPGs.

Elemental Enigma is using the briefly described here hierarchical graph approach, which was designed to facilitate building of a narrative filled with player choices. So far, while working on the current demo, the results are promising.

Talking to corpses – Update #6

There aren’t many RPGs that take place in fully realistic worlds. There is always some element of supernatural, fantasy or sci-fi involved. After all one of the goal of such games is to explore fantasies and provide player with experiences otherwise unobtainable.

And this can lead to interesting situations.

Some of the most memorable moments in, not only RPGs but video games in general, are interactions with odd or interesting characters. Red XIII In Final Fantasy VII, Knights of the Round table in Fallout 2, industrial machines thinking they are people in Soma and many more.

Hopefully Elemental Enigma will have its own share of interactions which will stay in players memories. Especially that many situations will be taken out Terry Prachett’s toolkit of putting real people in fantastic settings.

The currently developed demo of the game will have small glimpse of that as well. Although the location will not have that many NPCs, one might prove quite talkative. If the player will have the right skills to talk to them.

Quests – Update #5

An element that can be found in all RPGs are quests.

Quests are the place in the game where story and mechanics meet. They are a great way to add meaning to mechanics, as well as provide base for interaction for the game’s narrative. There are multiple ways to approach quest design. On one end you have strictly linear storylines (often found in jRPGs), on the other you have non-linear scattered collections of stories (mostly found in open-world RPGs like Fallout: New Vegas).

Elemental Enigma aims to exists somewhere in between these extremes. There will be one story, with multiple branches. Each quest is designed to provide multiple approaches to solving it, as well as emphasising player build choices, so that depending how the player develops their avatar, each quest might play slightly (or significantly) differently.

While quests have been in computer role playing games since their inception, the idea of a quest log has taken time to appear. Quest HUD trackers are an even later development. Although Elemental Enigma is to be an old-school game at heart, it is being built with all the modern developments in mind. There will be many mysteries to be solved, but “what was I supposed to be doing” will not be one of them.

There is much more to say about quest design in Elemental Enigma. Future updates will feature more in-depth information.