3 Ways Our Art Changed In May 2017

Last week, Jack wrote a general progress update about the game. We hadn’t done one in a while, and we’re trying to get our audience more informed about the process of game development. Inspired by his post, I’ve decided to dedicate the last post of every month to an update about the visual aesthetics in our game. We’ll review everything that got done in the previous month, with a small glimpse of the road ahead and how it relates to the larger goal of completing the game.

 

 

Getting The Ball Rolling On Five Worlds

Our game will feature 8 different Worlds by the time we’re done. Completing the artwork for all of those will take a while, so it’s never too early to get started. I had hoped to get more done this month, but I am glad to report that five of these Worlds have been started. They may never really be “finished” because I’m a perfectionist. Even when the game launches, I’ll still want to change things. But I might as well get them to a place where Jack can say “Frank, stop working! Step away from the computer!”. I’ve included some Work In Progress shots of each World below.

World-0-Forest

World 0 – Forest. This kit needs a lot of work. The bushes are too high-fidelity, and the trees are too low-fidelity. This is a screenshot of the game’s first Level.

World-1-Jail

World 1 – Jail. This kit exceeded my expectations. I wanted to convey the feeling of a claustrophobic, harsh volcanic prison. The brutalist-inspired walls really pull the aesthetic together.

World-2-River

World 2 – River. Inspired by the river styx, this is designed as a swampy, foreboding, gross river. Rickety wooden plank bridges contrast with log-cabin style barricades.

World-6-Summit

World 6 – Summit. One of the toughest to apply modular asset creation to so far. Blurring the grid lines was key to pulling this wintry, icy art kit together.

World-7-Paradise

World 7 – Paradise. This kit is complete, and looks gorgeous. I won’t actively work on it anymore unless something is missing in a Level we’re designing.

Please note that the screenshots included here don’t always reflect actual Levels in the game. Sometimes, to show off how pieces of artwork interact, I design fake Levels in the spirit of the game. Hopefully it gives you a good idea of my progress, and what needs to be done. I also decided to pawn off water effects onto Jack, so that’s why the fluids in these Levels just look like flat planes. (I built them with flat planes) Water will come later. Also coming later – the Worlds I haven’t started yet!

Expect to see screenshots of Worlds 3, 4, and 5 during next month’s update.

 

TwoHeads

Character Faces

One of the barriers I’ve been trying to break through is my Character Design issue. Every humanoid model I’ve created for Where Shadows Slumber so far has been hastily created for an upcoming deadline. The result is a slipshod model that looks nice from 1,000 feet away, but performs poorly when I need it to do something. In a previous blog post about cutscenes, I lamented at how terribly the Demo protagonist handled when I needed to animate him. His clothing had to be key-framed by hand, and his arms were bent out of whack.

But one of the biggest problems was his face. I modeled it the quick and easy way, and as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. I found it impossible to give him good facial expressions when the situation called for it.

HeadAnimations

The protagonist’s new head uses Morphs to smoothly transition between preset facial poses.

Flash forward to this month: I’m taking a new approach where I model character heads separately from their bodies so I can focus on facial animations using Morphs in 3DS Max. As long as no one notices that these heads are disconnected from their torsos, the effect works. Morphs allow me to model facial animations (frowns, smiles, surprise, anger) and move a slider from 0 – 100 to set the Intensity of the animation. How sad are you? Are you 35 sad, or 100 sad?

So far I modeled the main character’s head, along with a mysterious Wolf that no one knows about. The main character’s facial animations are done. In the future I’ll model two other mysterious figures that need facial animations… but I won’t give them away now!

Expect to see more character head animations during next month’s update. I’ll also do a more in-depth blog post about Facial Animation Using Morphs.

 

EveryUI.png

Main Menu User Interface

This piece of artwork is still in the planning stages. Unfortunately, I ran out of time this week and had to resort to paper-planning. I would have preferred to mock this up in Photoshop, but my computer died on me before I got around to it (more on that below).

HammerUI.png

Left: The main menu splash screen you see when loading up the game on your device. Right: The Settings and Junk page you see when you press the hammer button on the splash screen.

The plan for the UI is to make it as minimalist as possible, and refrain from using unnecessary text. To that end, I’m currently envisioning a bare bones splash page that just has the protagonist relaxing by a campfire and two buttons on it – a hammer and an arrow. The hammer is meant to indicate “Settings and Junk”. When pressed, it takes you to a side page where you can toggle various togglers™, such as the game language, in-game sound, and auto-skipping cutscenes. Team credits will be displayed there as well. An “X” at the bottom represents “go back” and I’ll try to keep that consistent throughout the whole game.

20170530_143221.jpg

Left: A screen of World 0. Center: A screen of World 1. Right: Half of a screen of World 2, which is locked and cannot be accessed.

The World menu is more involved. Pressing the arrow moves the camera to the right, where we see a 2D view of the first World, Forest. From there, players can swipe left and right to see the other Worlds. Worlds that they aren’t ready to play yet will be locked behind a padlock icon. (No need to reinvent the wheel there) When you’re looking at a World, I want the sounds of that World to play quietly in the background.

20170530_143238.jpg

Tiny overworld map of World 0, which begins with a cutscene “Level” and then has three real Levels. Some are blocked by the shadow.

Pressing the big juicy button with a number on it will take you to the Level Select menu for that World. This will look like a top-down map, with little circles representing the levels each connected by solid black pathways. As you beat more Levels, this map floods with more light. Pressing on a circle will take you to that Level.

That’s the flow I have in mind for the game’s menu. This doesn’t even cover menus that appear INSIDE the game’s Levels, such as when you press the pause button. But in any event, I believe I’ve covered everything the outer menu needs. I just hope this isn’t too much fiddling for a casual audience that isn’t used to games. Getting casual players over these hurdles is always a struggle!

Expect to see a digital version of this UI during next month’s update.

 

DAxOPKeVoAAK6FY

And now his watch is ended.

Tempus Fugit: Memento Mori

Normally in these blog posts, I showcase my cheery optimistic attitude. But not this time.

Late last week, my laptop suffered a blue screen crash and would not reboot to Windows when I tried turning it back on. I’ve been having rolling blue screen crashes for a while, but it usually restarted afterward. Now my computer is in the repair shop, and I’m getting the impression that it doesn’t look good. Probably because the technician told me “this doesn’t look good.” That’s what I get for ignoring the crashes all this time and refusing to pay for cutting-edge anti-virus software.

As I write this blog post on my old college ASUS laptop, I have mountains of artwork to do and very little time to do it. This laptop crash is going to set me back. The worst part is, it’s a waste of time that didn’t need to happen. Fortunately, no artwork was lost because everything is always on GitHub. I’m mostly worried about losing time.

My next update may be a little scarce, but hopefully it will include good news about my computer’s physical (and mental) health. Always back up your work online, kids! You never know when your next blue screen of death will be your last.

 

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We hope you enjoyed this update about the game’s artwork. Have a question about aesthetics that wasn’t mentioned here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

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Progress Report

Frank and I have worked hard on Where Shadows Slumber, and we continue to do so every day. As a team of two, designing a game at our own whims, it’s very liberating. No one tells us what to do, and there’s no bureaucratic red tape forcing us to work on any specific part of the game.

Unfortunately (for us), that red tape does have an actual purpose. Without anyone telling us what to do, we have to figure out what to do! I just touted this as a good thing, but it’s also terrifying! How do we know if we’re doing the right thing? We’re trying to get to a release of a completed game, and we’re the ones who have to decide how to get there! With success comes ultimate glory, but any failure rests on our heads. Given how likely failure is in this industry, we have to make the right decisions at every point of the way. How are we planning on doing it?

Well, despite the fact that I just really scared myself with that last paragraph, we’re going to take a deeper look into what we’ve done so far, and what we’re going to do next, from a project planning perspective.

 

How Far We’ve Come

evolution

The evolution of Grongus

Frank and I are just two normal duders. (Note: technical term)

We’re also two normal duders who happened to be perfectly suited to approach a project like this. He has some sort of degree related to art and technology, and I have some sort of degree in computer science. We both have the resources to survive without depending on the income from what will end up being a ‘pet project’, and yet we’re both driven enough to dedicate ourselves to that project, even though we’re not dependent on it. We’re close enough to be willing to work together, but not so close that we just end up bickering the whole time.

When the idea for Where Shadows Slumber came up, we knew we had something awesome on our hands. We came up with  a plan, developed a schedule, and started working!

Now, that plan and that schedule have changed a lot in the past two years. Features have come and gone, level design has gone through a lot of iterations, and even our day-to-day process has changed. But, through this flexibility, we’ve managed to stay somewhat on-track. We’re still here, we’re still working on our game, and we’re still in a position where we can have a timely release.

Those of you who have never worked on an indie game are probably wondering why that seems like an accomplishment, while those of you who have are dying to know how we did it. And, if I had to choose a word to describe how we got here, it would be introspection.

in·tro·spec·tion
noun
  1. the examination or observation of one’s own mental and emotional processes.

What I mean by this is that we are constantly looking at our process, looking at what we’ve done, the mistakes we’ve made, and the road ahead. We have to asses our project as often and as accurately as possible, and we have to be completely honest with ourselves, if we want an accurate plan of action.

We’ve done this many times throughout development, and last week, we sat down and did the same thing again. So, let’s take a look at that process!

 

Where we are now

In my experience, when working on a game, there are usually three mindsets you’ll fall into:

  • ‘Future me will take care of that’ – This happens when your target release date is far enough in the future that the time left and the remaining tasks haven’t formed into a concrete plan, but you have so much time that you know you’ll be fine. This is often accompanied with phrases like ‘I’ll still have  plenty of time for X once I’m done with Y’. Be careful with this thought process – in my experience, you always have more work and less time than you think!
  • ‘I’m behind schedule, and I didn’t even realize it’ – This might be the most stressful mindset, but it’s probably the best one. This starts to crop up as your release date is no longer ‘in the distance’, and the enormity of your remaining tasks really hits you. You start thinking things like ‘I don’t know if I can finish all this work in that amount of time’. If you’re here, then fear not! This is a great place to be – there will always be a lot of work to do, but at least you’re not in the final mindset…
  • ‘Finishing on time is literally impossible’ – This is where you don’t want to end up (obviously). If you put tasks off for too long, or underestimate how long things will take, or just don’t realize that your release date is approaching, one day you’ll wake up in this mindset. You’ll realize that, no matter how hard you work, there’s simply too much work left to do, and you’ll curse your former self for not working harder. Again, please don’t let yourself get here!

The first thing you’ll notice about these mindsets is that none of them really seem great! There’s no ‘everything is on track – lookin’ good!’ The first one kind of feels like that, but it’s usually just a trap. There’s a period of time, I think it’s usually like 6-8 months, beyond which it’s hard to see how a schedule will play out. You can end up in the first mindset, even if you’re incredibly far behind, just because it’s hard for us to instinctively schedule that time.

Checklist

It’s okay – the only thing left to do is everything!

But, either way, it’s okay! Nobody gets into indie game development for the relaxing schedule and numerous spa days – we expect to be behind the 8-ball. The reason I bring this up is so that I can describe where Frank and I are in the process. And you know what?

We’re behind the 8-ball. We have a lot of work to do. In particular, in the past month, we’ve moved from the first mindset to the second. When we had more than 6-8 months left, it felt like we had all the time in the world. Now that we’ve just crossed the border into the 6-8 month mark, it’s starting to hit us – there’s a lot of work ahead of us. Do we have enough time? Can we get everything done?

These are the thoughts going through our heads now. And there are questions that naturally follow – can we still make it? What do we have to do now? What’s next?

 

What’s Next?

planning

This is what planning feels like in indie game development

When you find that you’ve fallen behind in development, you have to correct your process somehow. In my experience, you have three major choices:

  • Delay the release – There’s not enough time to do everything. The fix? Just take more time! This approach is fine (especially when your fans are expecting high quality), as long as your fans are somewhat understanding, you’re not racing against anything (like a competitor, or your own funds), and you haven’t already delayed the release by a lot.
  • Reduce the scope – There’s too much stuff to do in that time. The fix? Just do less stuff! This basically means that you’ll make fewer levels, add fewer features, and maybe decrease the quality that you expect from your game. This is useful, but it can be dangerous – just make sure that the game you end up with is still good enough to be worth it!
  • Buckle down – This one is last, but it’s usually the first one we try. We can’t change the release date – we made a promise to our fans! We can’t reduce the scope – we will not sacrifice our game! Sometimes in life, you simply have to work harder. Before you realized you were behind schedule, it was easy to durdle about, not really getting the important things done. Once you know you’re behind schedule, sometimes all it takes is a mental shift to get more done.

These are the three biggest options you have. Choosing what you need to do at any given point is an entirely subjective task, in that it depends on the stage of development, the type of game, the personal lives of the team members, the average annual wind speed, etc. Basically, I can’t tell you what to do here – if you’re already working 50 hour weeks, maybe you simply can’t afford to work harder. If nobody knows what your planned release date was, and there’s no market pressure, maybe you can just move it back a couple of months. Just choose what’s right for you, and don’t be afraid to re-asses that choice as time passes.

The important part is to actually make a choice. If you realize that you’re not going to finish your game on time, you need to do something. The math isn’t lying, and the longer it takes to make a change, the worse off you’ll be. Recognize that there’s a problem, and do something about it.

Right now, Frank and I are behind, and we’ve decided that we’re going to buckle down. We’re going to work harder and get more done. In another week, we’ll asses our progress and take a look at the road ahead. If we’re still behind, then maybe we’ll resort to reducing the scope or delaying the release. Hopefully we don’t have to, but it’s important to be flexible and honest with yourself.

This post, of course, does not get into the minutiae of how this planning process relates to Where Shadows Slumber, but I hope it was either helpful for your own planning process, or at least entertaining. Until next time, may you examine your own progress, and I hope that you always find yourself ahead.

 

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If you have any questions or comments about our project planning process (or anything else), you can always find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Jack Kelly is the head developer and designer for Where Shadows Slumber.

Object Pooling

Alright, it’s finally getting a little bit warmer around here as spring comes and goes, so let’s celebrate by jumping into the pool! That’s right, today we’re going to be talking about an ever-important pattern in game development, the concept of Object Pooling. Object Pooling is a design pattern which involves creating a set of objects – a ‘pool’ – and reusing those objects, rather than creating/destroying objects throughout a game.

pool

Object Pooling involves recycling objects

This is a very important concept in game development, and it’s the first topic we’ve reached that is almost entirely associated with the optimization of a game. For mobile game developers, resources are limited, so it’s important that we don’t waste anything. Object pooling helps us save resources, and is less of a mechanic, and more of a general design pattern. We used it in Where Shadows Slumber, but it isn’t even one of the more defining features of the game. However, it’s still an incredibly important concept.

So, without further ado, let’s dive in!

 

Why do we need Object Pooling?

Unity is a pretty cool system, and it gives you some pretty cool toys to play with. Two powerful toys it gives you are Instantiate() and Destroy(), which allow you to create a new instance of a GameObject, and to get rid of an instance of a GameObject, respectively. I assume that other game engines provide similar functions. If you’ve played around with some simple stuff in Unity, you might have seen how useful these functions can be.

The problem with Instantiate() and Destroy() comes when we try to use them a lot. You see, every time you call Instantiate(), Unity goes into your memory, finds a chunk of memory big enough to store the new object, and allocates it. Conversely, every time you call Destroy(), Unity finds that object in memory, clears it out, and marks that memory as ‘available’. This whole process is aided by the use of a garbage collector, which runs occasionally, making sure that deleted things were actually deleted.

Those of you familiar with computer science may see where I’m going with this. Basically, this isn’t great. Calling Instantiate() or Destroy() every once in a while is fine. But when you call them all the time, Unity starts to slow down. Memory allocations and deallocations are somewhat expensive, meaning the garbage collector will be running a lot, sucking valuable power away from your game! Every time the garbage collector runs, your game might lag a tiny bit. This is doubly true for environments where resources are limited (say, on a mobile device).

So, our clever brain gets to work. ‘Hmm’, it says, ‘if calling these functions is bad, let’s just not call them!’ Brilliant, brain, as usual! Surprisingly, in this case, the first idea that pops into our head is actually pretty good – we just won’t use Instantiate() or Destroy(). Problem solved!

The only remaining question is how to maintain the functionality we had before. We were, for example, using a gun, and every time we fired, we would instantiate a bullet. Every time the bullet hit something, we would destroy it. How can we get that same functionality without using Instantiate() or Destroy()?

 

Object Pooling

The answer to the above questions is, obviously, to use object pooling. The concept is pretty simple – rather than creating a new bullet every time we fire our gun, and then destroying every bullet individually, why don’t we just reuse the bullets? They all look the same, so no one will know the difference!

NonVsPooling

Object pooling in a space shooter (image credit: raywenderlich.com)

This is the idea behind object pooling. Rather than creating and destroying a bunch of bullets every frame, which can get expensive, we simply create a bunch of bullets at the beginning of the game, and reuse them. We store all of the bullets in a ‘pool’ – they’re all deactivated and unmoving, so they have no effect on the game. Then, every time we fire the gun, we grab a bullet from the pool, change its position and velocity so it looks like it’s coming from the gun, and enable it. The bullet flies through the air, and then strikes a wall, or moves off of the screen. At this point, we simply disable the bullet and return it to the pool to be used again!

If this seems a little weird, think of it like extras in a TV show or movie. In the first scene, we need a crowd, so we hire a bunch of actors to be people in the crowd. The next scene is in a different city, but still needs a crowd. Do we fire all of the extras we already hired, and then spend more time hiring different extras? Well, nobody was really paying too much attention to the extras in the first scene – let’s just use them again for the second scene! This is pretty common in TV and movies, and there’s no reason we can’t do the same thing here.

“I gave a very memorable performance as the nurse, and now, suddenly, I’m the waitress? That’s gonna confuse my fans!”
– Phoebe Buffay, Friends

Using object pooling, we can avoid the need for our expensive allocation/deallocation functions (other than at the beginning/end of a level, where slowness is more acceptable) by reusing all sorts of objects. There is a tradeoff here – using an object pool means that, whenever we need a bullet (or any object), we have to be sure that there will be one in the pool. This means that we actually need to store more copies of the object than we ever expect to use. While object pooling makes it easier for the CPU to keep up with what we’re doing, it uses up more memory.

This is called the space-time tradeoff, and it’s pretty common in computer science. The idea is that, in order to optimize for time (make your code run as fast as possible), it generally uses up more space (in the form of RAM). In this case, time refers to time spent in the CPU – saving time means less lag, which makes for a better game. In general, on mobile platforms at least, saving time it more important, so this is a tradeoff we’re happy to make by using object pooling.

 

Where Shadows Slumber

So, how did we use object pooling in Where Shadows Slumber? We don’t have any bullets, so what else can object pooling be used for?

Honestly, object pooling wasn’t incredibly important to the core game – all of our levels are pre-made and we don’t have any projectiles or anything else flying around. Where we did use object pooling was in ‘special effect land’. Every time the main character takes a step, a small sound plays, and in some levels you can see a puff of sand behind him. These are what we have taken to calling footfalls, and they’re one of the main things we used object pooling for.

Footfall

This group of particles is a footfall, and was pulled from a pool rather than instantiated!

In fact, sometimes you may have used object pooling without even realizing it! You see, one of the primary uses for object pooling is within particle systems. A particle system may emit a burst of hundreds of particles at once. Imagine trying to instantiate that many object in the same frame – your game would lag for sure! However, if the particle system uses object pooling, it will simply enable all of those objects, and your game will keep running without a hitch. This allows you to get high-quality particle effects without having to worry too much about the impact on performance.

Hopefully this quick conceptual intro to object pooling helps you out, and saves you many CPU cycles! I should mention that I got an image from this blog post on object pooling, which coincidentally is a very good resource if you want to get a good look at an implementation of object pooling.

 

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If you have any questions or comments about object pooling (or anything else), you can always find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Jack Kelly is the head developer and designer for Where Shadows Slumber.

Time Tracking, When Done Wrong, Is Useless

My good friend, this week you are in luck.

For starters, I’m going to forego my usual wordy style and cut right to the chase. I’m typing this well in advance of the deadline, because I’ll be on vacation when this is posted. That means I don’t have time to blather incessantly about artwork and other such nonsense. (Really, who has the time?)

The other reason you’re in luck is because I’m about to save you about 14 months of hassling when it comes to proper time tracking. They say that good judgment comes from experience – and that experience comes from bad judgment. Well, let’s talk about my experiences with time tracking. Then we’ll get to my bad judgment near the end.

 

Jack

A sample time sheet from the veeeeeeery beginning of the Demo Phase.

 

Time Tracking: An Intro

Before we go on, a quick definition is in order. You’re probably wondering what time tracking is. (If you already know, you’ll save time by skipping this section.) Time tracking is the continuous project management process of collecting data on how members of a project are spending their time working on that project.

In theory, you’re supposed to do it for a few months and then look at the data. If you find out everyone is spending 5 times as long as they should working on some task (A), then you’ll change process (B) so that task (A) doesn’t take so long in the future. That’s the hope, anyway.

In practice, it means filling out time sheets (see above) like a madman every time you do anything related to your indie game. Done incorrectly, it will actually take time away from your project and give nothing back in return. Done properly, it gives you keen just-in-time insights that let you wisely cut features and move staff around before you hit that impending deadline.

 

Old Sheet

On the surface this time sheet may look good. However, on further inspection…

How To Do A Bad Job

I want to tell you how to do time tracking properly, but you won’t appreciate the correct approach until you see it done wrong.

For the entirety of our time working on the Where Shadows Slumber Demo, Jack and I tracked our time with a time sheet I devised. This Google Spreadsheet had an entry for every sprint (a period of 1 or 2 weeks, usually the time between team Skype meetings) with a bunch of headings: Day, Start, End, Total, and Task. Here’s what they meant:

  • Day – What day during the Sprint did you work on this Task?
  • Start – “Punch in” at a time to begin working on the Task.
  • End – “Punch out” at a time to stop working on the Task.
  • Total – The number of minutes you worked on the Task.
  • Task – What you worked on.

As you can see, this tells us a lot about how I spent my Sprint. But none of this information is relevant to project management in the long term. There’s no indication whether or not I actually completed the Tasks I worked on. (Some have percent complete markers, but those are just guesses anyway) Looking at this, I have no idea how the project moved ahead during the Sprint. Our only real metric is the number of hours I worked – nearly 19. But… who cares? It’s not like I’m charging anyone by the hour! Jack and I do this as a labor of love, with salaries to come from proceeds from the final game.

This time sheet makes the critical error of measuring the wrong metric. I must confess that some weeks, I tried to just work for a long time instead of working effectively so I could feel good about logging impressive hours. That’s a sign of bad project management. As a manager, you ought to offer incentives for behavior that gets the project completed on-time and at a high quality.

The results? Internally, we had a lot of arguments about this process as Jack felt it was unnecessary. Because I never returned to the data we created to analyze it, we got nothing for all our tedious efforts. Jack stopped tracking his time, and that was a warning sign that I needed to change things up. Our time tracking was costing us time to do, with no benefit to the team. Time for a change!

 

TimeSheet

Time Sheet: Version 2.0!

 

My Time Tracking Strategy

Here’s how I altered the process for the final project. Starting April 4th, I began tracking my time the way shown above. The headings this time are Task, EST, ACT, Error, and Status. Let’s deconstruct that jargon:

  • Task – One entry for the Task this time, no matter how long it takes.
  • EST – Short for “Estimate”, this is an educated guess about how many minutes this task will take to complete. You’re supposed to guess at the beginning of the sprint.
  • ACT – Short for “Actual”, this is the actual number of minutes this task took to complete. You’re supposed to fill this in as you go. It’s the only thing that requires active time tracking while you work.
  • Error – This is automatically calculated with an Excel formula. It’s the percentage of error between your guess (EST) and the actual time (ACT). You want to get 0%, meaning that your guess was perfect. The larger the number is, the worse your guess was. The formula I use here is =(ACT – EST ACT.
  • Status – The most important part! Each task is a discrete item within the larger project that is either done or not done. We want a full list of check marks at the end of this sprint. If a task is left incomplete, there had better be a good reason!

As you can see, now the spreadsheet is setup with the Task as the most important thing. We’re measuring whether tasks are complete ( ) or incomplete ( ) instead of measuring how many hours someone has worked. That’s important, because people tend to maximize whatever they’re being graded on if you observe them working.

It’s changing my behavior, too! Instead of acting like I need to fill my time sheet with useless “minute points”, now I feel the pressure to get my estimation right. Of course, I can only be right if I finish the Task. The incentive structure of this time sheet is way better! We begin with an incentive to make a good guess. Then we have an incentive to conform towards that good guess so we don’t get “mark of shame error percentages”. Finally, we have an incentive to finish each Task so it doesn’t remain a permanent “X of shame” forever. Perfect!

This will lead to actual progress on the project and helpful information about our estimation ability at a glance.

 

innovation-think-big-act-small-fail-fast-and-learn-rapidly-7-638

In all seriousness, though – I did fail.

The Lesson? Get It Right The First Time

To conclude… I have bad news. If you’re a project manager, listen up! You need to get this stuff right the first time. Putting your teammates through a tedious process of time tracking gets on their nerves after a while. People can only put up with that for so long, especially if they don’t get anything out of it.

I’m still doing time tracking, but Jack has become disillusioned with the process. I don’t blame him, but it’s still a shame. Had I gotten this right the first time, we might still be on the same page.

Don’t reinvent the wheel like I did on my first attempt. Use a proven method that works, read some software management books, talk to an industry professional, and communicate with your teammates during the early stages of the project. If you do, people will find time tracking fulfilling. Otherwise, they’ll fall by the wayside. And remember – you can never force anyone to do anything, you can only offer irresistible incentives!

 

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Thanks for taking the “time” to read this “clock”. Have a question about time tracking that was not answered here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

 

Where Shadows Slumber: Working On A Small Team

Editor’s Note: The post was almost titled ‘Working with Frank Suxxxxxx’, but I decided against it (mostly because it’s not true).

So, you want to be a game developer, do you? You want to be the voice behind the games that so molded your childhood? You want to create an experience for generations ahead to enjoy?

Well, the best way to do that is probably to get a job at-

What’s that? Oh, you want to be in charge of the game development. You don’t want to work on a game, you want to create a game. You don’t want to help someone else make their game – you want to make your own game, in your own voice.

In that case, it looks like you want to become an indie game developer. You get to design your own games the way you want to, which is a thrilling concept. However, it’s not all fun and games and I-don’t-have-a-real-boss, and you should probably know exactly what you’re getting into.

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Choices, choices…

Now, I’ve never worked at a professional game development studio, so I can’t give you an entirely clear picture of what you’re missing out on there. I do have some experience with different-sized companies though – my last job was at one of the biggest banks in the world, my current company employs no more than seven people, and I, of course, am on the two-person Where Shadows Slumber team. So, hopefully I can give you a good overview of the differences between these types of jobs and companies, so that you know what you’re signing up for.

There are a lot of differences between small teams and large teams, and there are a lot of similarities. I’m going to go over some of the things that are better about each. These lists won’t be absolutely complete, but I hope I can sketch out a rough image of what life looks like at these different jobs.

Also, real quick, I just want to mention that if I say something bad about working on a small team, I am not necessarily referring to Frank, or anyone at my current job. I’ve been on a lot of small teams over the years, and these are just my general observations, not passive-aggressive pain points meant to make my colleagues feel bitter.

 

The Bigger, the Better

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Cubicles, as far as the eye can see!

For the most part, when I tell someone working in technology that I worked for a large bank, I get a negative response, or maybe some sympathy. It seems that it’s not viewed as the ideal technological job. While bureaucracy isn’t exactly my thing, I will say that I did enjoy my time there, for a number of reasons:

  • Responsibility – The thing I liked most about working at a big company was a lack of responsibility. Maybe that’s my 16 year-old slacker self talking, but there’s something really satisfying about not having to worry about the future of the company. Had a bad quarter? As long as I still have a job, I don’t really care! There’s a tough decision to be made? Glad I don’t have to decide! While this isn’t the best way to be thinking about the company that’s providing your livelihood, it is a somewhat calming thought.
  • Funding – I suppose this one is the most obvious reason why a big company might do well. There’s a lot of cash money floating around in the company, so any project the company decides to pursue will be well-funded. Along with this comes a lower chance of failure. Since you already have funding, and you already have a name people recognize, most of your projects will be much more likely to turn a profit. They say that 90% of startups fail very quickly, making startup jobs very volatile. Getting a job at a large company, however, might end up lasting far longer than you even want it to!
  • Specialization – When I worked at the bank, I was on the identity management and access control team. If someone had a question about SSO, security, trading, or anything else, they wouldn’t come to me. I only had to worry about identity management and access control concerns. You end up specializing in a certain area, and that area is your only concern, so you can really learn a lot about it.
  • No Personality Clashes – This is one you don’t really consider that much, but it can be a biggie. Working in close proximity with the same people day after day will probably happen wherever you end up. However, that situation gets a lot more interesting when you have to continuously make difficult decisions with those people. If you disagree, how will you resolve it? There’s no ‘boss’ you can go and ask – you have to work it out. This doesn’t sound too bad, but that’s only because we don’t really notice other people’s personalities until we’re already in the crucible with them. Maybe your partner is incredibly stubborn, and you can’t convince her to change her mind about something. Maybe he’s really arrogant, and he’ll never even consider that your idea might be better than his. Whatever the situation, you need to be able to resolve it. (again, this doesn’t refer to anyone in particular).
    This situation, however, is less likely to occur at a large company. If you disagree with a colleague, you can ask your boss, or quote company procedure, or ‘escalate’ the issue to their boss. In the majority of cases, you’ll only have to work with that person a handful of days out of the year anyways!

 

Less Is More

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Just one booth?

As good a case as I made for big companies, working on a small team has also been really awesome. Here are some of the reasons:

  • Decision Making  The first and most important benefit of working at a small company (or, in particular, your own company), is being involved in the decision-making process. When you’re one of the only five people making decisions about your product, you have a lot more say in the outcome. People take your opinion seriously, and you can actually make a difference in the product. This, I imagine, is the biggest reason that people like to work at smaller companies – if I want to make a game that’s really mine in some sense, then the bigger an impact I have on that game, the better.
  • Creative Freedom – This is another biggie, and it’s very similar to the above. I don’t want my boss to tell me that the Ring of Blood item should be red – I want to make that decision myself – maybe I want it to be green! That might not be a great idea, but at least it’s my decision.
  • Pride – When you make something awesome, you have a lot of pride in it. When you’re one of the main reasons that a project is completed, you feel a lot more pride in it than if you only helped out a little. Saying ‘look at my awesome game’ feels a lot better than ‘look at my company’s awesome game’.
  • Learning – When you’re working on a large team, you might end up being a ‘guy’. You might be the ‘shader guy’, or the ‘pathfinding guy’, or whatever. However, when you’re working on a small team, you have to be all of the ‘guy’s. For Where Shadows Slumber, if there’s anything that counts as a programming task, I’m the one responsible for it. That means I have to be an expert on everything. This can be viewed as a bad thing (and I even listed it as a benefit of working at a big company), but I prefer to think of it as a learning opportunity – I know a lot more about shaders now than I would have if I had a ‘shader guy’ to take care of it for me.
  • Working with Friends – Yes, I listed this as a startup-con before, but there’s still something to be said for working with your friends. While it can lead to some messy situations, it can also lead to some brilliant teamwork and a very fun working environment. You just have to make sure you know how to deal with each other before you start working together.

 

The Dream Team

So, what is the ideal team to work on? In particular, what is the ideal team for you to work on? What’s your dream team? Unfortunately, I can’t answer that question. What I can do is tell you about my experience with small teams, and what I’ve learned from it.

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This is it. This is the dream team.

Striking out on your own is an exciting prospect. Thinking forward to a future where you’re publishing a game and making enough money to not die is awesome, and knowing that you get to make any and all decisions about that game, making it truly yours, is inspiring. You’ll sit down at a booth to show off your game, someone will ask you how big your team is, and you’ll get to smugly reply ‘it’s just us’. You don’t answer to anyone, and you’re the only one who gets to change your game.

This is also an exhausting experience. Continuing to work hard on your game, knowing the chances of failure, can be very discouraging. Working on the same project every single day, seeing the glacial progress, and still believing that you’re going to ‘make it’ is sometimes impossible. Arguing endlessly with your team members and looking forward at another year of difficult decisions, knowing you still have to work with them every day, is a near-insurmountable mental and emotional hurdle. Not to mention the pressure to succeed, especially if you’ve decided that this will be your only occupation. It’s a task that not everyone is cut out for.

The option I went for ended up being a blend of both. I worked at a big company as my actual job, and worked on Where Shadows Slumber as a side project. This allowed me the freedom to create my own game in my own voice, without having the stress and pressure of living on an indie game development salary. This is an option I would recommend, although I will say that it can be more difficult than either of the alternatives, since you end up doing more day-to-day work, but your game takes even longer to complete.

 

I can’t tell you exactly what kind of team you should be trying to work on, or if indie game development is the career for you. No matter what I say, if you’re meant to be an indie game developer, you will be. All I ask is that you know what you’re getting into before you take the plunge.

 

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Hopefully this gives you some insight into the world of small teams, and I didn’t scare you off too much. If you have any questions or comments about working on a small team (or anything else), you can always find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Jack Kelly is the head developer and designer for Where Shadows Slumber.

Paradise Found

Now that artistic development of Where Shadows Slumber has begun in earnest, I have embarked on a long journey – creating each of the game’s Worlds. Up until now, we’ve been making demo levels strung together with a vague theme (Canyon, Aqueduct, Tomb) and worked backwards from design to find some kind of artistic through-line. But for the final game, Jack and I are taking a different approach. First, we planned out each of the game’s Worlds. Then, we designed Levels for those Worlds that fit their theme and orbited around a single mechanic. Now I’m at the part of the pipeline where it’s time to actually create modular art assets that can be used to create Levels inside each World.

Let’s unpack some of the jargon in that paragraph.

SPOILER WARNING: This blog post discusses the final World of “Where Shadows Slumber”, which is still in development. Although the game is subject to change, this can potentially ruin your experience if you intend to play the game without knowing where your journey leads. If you don’t want to have it spoiled, do not continue reading.

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What Are Worlds?

Call us old-fashioned, but Jack and I grew up playing games like Super Mario, which was organized around a World/Level paradigm. You had to beat each of the Levels in World 1 in order to progress to World 2.

Defining a Level is easy enough because our demo has 9 of them – a Level is a single screen of the game, with a large puzzle to complete. Often it is comprised of multiple smaller puzzles. Some Levels early in the game are designed to introduce Players to new concepts. Levels that come later serve as final exams, testing the Player. Can you put what you’ve learned to use in order to solve a really complex puzzle?

If Levels are just puzzles, Worlds are the aesthetic glue that bundles them together and gives the game a story. A game with 30 grey, silent puzzles is going to rapidly become boring and repetitive. How can you tell a story that way? By grouping our Levels into Worlds, we can indicate to our Player that your character is traveling on a journey. You start in a Forest World – eventually, you get to a City World. The developers are making a clear statement: this game exists in a physical space, and your character’s success in his journey is based on whether or not he reaches his destination.

Best of all, we don’t need to use a lot of words to communicate this during the game. Once you realize you’ve completed a World and moved on to a new one that looks radically different, there’s a sense of accomplishment. Even better, curiosity drives the Player’s engagement from this point onward. “What other Worlds did they put in the game?”, one wonders. “I have to beat this Level. It’s the last one in World 4, and I’m dying to see World 5!”

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Inspirations For World 7 – “Paradise”

Now that we’ve defined what Worlds are, we can discuss my process for designing what each one looks like. For this blog post I decided to focus on my current project, World 7 – “Paradise”. Don’t get your hopes up here! I’m not working on these chronologically. I actually started with World 7. This is by no means an indication that I’m almost done with the game’s artwork. Not even close.

Most of the Worlds in our game are inspired by real life locations. The Forest World is obviously inspired by large wooded areas in temperate zones. Some Worlds have even more specific inspirations, however. World 7 is supposed to be a paradise – a floating garden in the clouds where your journey ends. I wanted to make it feel heavenly and relaxing without relying on tired mythological tropes like pearly gates and clouds. What to do?

“You go to heaven if you want to — I’d rather stay right here in Bermuda.”

– Mark Twain, during his final visit to the island shortly before his death.

I decided to use the unique architecture found on the island of Bermuda as a template. The tropical island is quite beautiful due to its crystal clear blue water, pink sand beaches, and lush vegetation. But in my many visits to the island (my family loves to travel there) I have found that the human architecture adds to the island’s beauty, rather than detract from it.

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Since Bermuda is an island in the ocean, fresh water is scarce. They must collect rain water from whatever storms pass by and hoard them in water tanks underneath their homes. Because of this technology, every single roof in Bermuda is made from white limestone and has a ridged pyramid-like shape, optimized for water collection. I’ve never seen it anywhere else, and I find the uniformity soothing – like small white mountains popping out amidst the island’s trees.

I’m not sure why, but home owners in Bermuda have also taken to painting their stone houses with bright pastel colors that really stand out. Everything from dark cerulean, pink, yellow, light red, teal, and even bright green can be found as you glance at a Bermudian city. It’s a welcome departure from the reddish brick of Hoboken, New Jersey – not to mention the grey steel glass of nearby Manhattan. The entire island of Bermuda is brimming with life, and the island’s human residents don’t mire the look of the tropical paradise one bit.

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On a separate note, I’ve always found the Japanese cherry blossom to be both vibrantly beautiful and soothing. In full bloom, they have dazzling pink flowers at the tip of each branch. They fit better into this “Bermuda as heavenly paradise” design than palm trees do, so I’d like to include them as well.

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Picking Crayons – A Color Palette For Paradise

Once I decided that this tropical paradise would become our game’s final destination, I set out to capture the beauty in an organized fashion. I asked myself two important questions:

  1. If you could use no more than 10 colors, which ones best represent Bermuda?
  2. What is the best way to create a modular set of pieces that can be used to build similar architecture?

The result of the first question is found below. This is the color palette for World 7. It’s a bit like picking out only certain crayons from the box and sticking with them. Deciding on a color palette is a good way to rein in my creativity and make sure I’m not just picking random colors when it comes time to make the real game.

ColorPalettes_7_Paradise

I created this by using some images of Bermuda from Google Images and picking out colors with the eyedropper tool in Photoshop. It’s a good way of breaking out of my shell in order to use tones and hues I might otherwise not select from a color wheel. Snaking from top left, to bottom left, and then to the next row:

  • Limestone White: This white color will be used for rooftops in this World.
  • Limestone Blue: This blue is actually going to be used for when the limestone is in shadow, for a stark contrast.
  • Yellow, Purple, Green, Red: These four colors are going to be what houses are painted with. I picked the most Easter-ish ones I could find.
  • Sky Blue: Since this World is floating, you’ll be able to see the sky in the background. This solid color will serve that purpose.
  • Dark Green: The grass and trees in this World are a lush green.
  • Cherry Pink: I want to have cherry blossoms in full bloom in this World.
  • Cherry Brown: The cherry trees need to have a bark, after all. But not too dark!

There’s no way I’ll stick to just these colors, but it serves as a good baseline. You can tell just by looking at the grid of 10 above that this World is brighter and more peaceful than the ones preceding it. I hope it will be a welcome sight to Players who have reached the end of our game.

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Modeling Modular Members of Paradise

Say that 10 times fast.

Once we know what the final result will look like, and we have colors and reference images to guide us, it’s time to model some pieces in 3D. To build a Level in this grid-based puzzle game, we need 1×1 pieces that can snap together to form walkways, obstacles, and doorways.

As you can see from the Autodesk 3DS Max screenshot above, each piece is modeled separately and laid out in an organized manner. They are precisely the size they need to be, and their rotation is preset so that we don’t have to mess with them in Unity. With an organized set of tiles like this, even a non-artist member of the team can snap them together like jigsaw pieces.

It might not look like much, but when they are combined together in Unity, they can form complete shapes that resemble Bermuda:

Bermuda

Assembled in Unity entirely from modular World 7 pieces.

This process is not yet complete, but I feel confident in the direction I’m heading. The floor tiles all have beautiful banisters on them. The roof tiles (purely decorative) mirror the strange step-like quality of Bermuda’s. The open shutters give a sense that the island is prepared for the worst, but enjoying the calm before the storm.

I’ll post more process pictures as I complete more 3D models. But until then, I hope you’ve enjoyed this in-depth look at how much work goes into designing a single World of the game. Hopefully this front-loaded design work makes it easier to create beautiful Levels later down the road.

 

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Got a picture of Bermuda you’d like to share? Have a question about aesthetic design that was not answered here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

Mechanic Spotlight: Pathfinding

For a game like Where Shadows Slumber, the most basic interaction you have is to tell the character to move to a spot. If he’s a good boy, he’ll do what you say, deftly dodging pillars and chasms as he winds his way toward the destination. You don’t even have to tell him how to get there – he’ll figure it out!

This leads us to the topic of pathfinding, the process by which the character figures out where to move. Pathfinding is very common in game development, and can be summed up with a single question:

How do you get from point A to point B? Rather, what’s the best way to get from point A to point B?

This is the question that encapsulates the idea of pathfinding. In the real world, I tend to take whatever public transit is available, and walk the rest of the way. Some people open up their GPS, hop in their car, and follow the directions. You could even simply determine the direction you’re going, grab a compass, and just start walking.

Each of these is an example of a pathfinding algorithm. The algorithm is a set of instructions which determines exactly how to get somewhere. Pathfinding algorithms in games are a little different from the ones listed above, but the concept remains the same. Given a starting point, a destination, and some information about the surroundings, how should you get there?

 

Finding a Path in the Darkness

Pathfinding is a pretty common concept in computer science, even outside of gaming. It has received a lot of attention and study in the computer science world, so I won’t get into the intricate details and just stick to the broader points. If you want more details, there are plenty of pathfinding intros and tutorials out there.

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The leading theory for the motivation behind Dijkstra’s Algorithm

Some number of years ago, a cool bro by the name of Dijkstra came up with a good pathfinding algorithm, appropriately dubbed Dijkstra’s Algorithm. Years later, a variant known as A* Pathfinding is still a favorite among game developers, and is the algorithm I decided to use for Where Shadows Slumber.

The basic idea behind A* is to divide your map into a set of areas, which I have taken to calling ‘nodes’. For each of these nodes, you determine which other nodes it’s connected to, and how hard it is to move between the nodes.

What do I mean by that? Imagine you’re standing in front of a fence, and you want to cross to the other side. In this case, the best path is probably just to climb over it. However, if there’s an open gate in the fence a few feet away, that might be the best route to take. Even though you’re travelling more distance, that path is faster, or at least easier. In the same way, each node has a ‘pathfinding cost’, indicating the difficulty to cross it. Our ground node might have a cost of 1, whereas the fence node could have a much higher cost of 10 or so, since it’s so much more difficult to cross.

Once you know what your nodes are, and how they’re connected, the A* algorithm will efficiently loop through and figure out which nodes you should travel over. After that, all you have to do is move the character from one node to the next, and you have pathfinding!

 

Nodes

I kind of glossed over the whole idea of nodes earlier. A node is a representation of a point in which the character can stand. He cannot stand anywhere where there isn’t a node, or in between two nodes, and he can only travel from node to node. Every path in the game is made up of nodes.

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An ‘under-the-hood’ look at nodes in Where Shadows Slumber

A node consists of three parts:

  • The node position, shown as a dark sphere in the center of the node, indicates the position the character will be in when he is on this node. This position is usually the same as the node’s position, but there are some cases where it needs to be different.
  • The click detector, shown as a blue cube, is simply a big box with a collider on it. That way, we can detect when you click on the node, and start the pathfinding. Different types of nodes can have different colliders – a normal node has a cube collider, but a ramp node might have a triangular prism collider or something.
  • The boundaries, shown as small pink spheres, determine which other nodes this node is connected to. Since nodes are appearing and disappearing throughout the game, we need to be able to know which nodes should be connected. If two boundaries are in the same location, that means their nodes are connected. In the image, each node along the path is connected to the next, because their boundaries are in the same spots.

With these three parts, the nodes are able to fit together and provide all of the information necessary to, at any point, determine what path the character should take.

 

Follow the Path

Once we determine the path, then what? How do we follow it? A path is a series of steps: move from Node A to Node B, then move from Node B to Node C, and so on. To this end, the nodes each have another property: nextNodeInPath. Each node stores a reference to the next node in the path. In every frame, the character checks his current node. If it has a next node, the next node is still enabled, and the two nodes are still connected, then he starts moving there!

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Using Debug.DrawLine to show the character’s path in light blue

In this way, the character will make his way along the path determined by the algorithm. If he comes to a node which he can no longer get to, then he’ll stop. This allows us to create a path, and we don’t have to think about it too much after that. The player will automatically follow the path, and, if the path somehow becomes broken, he’ll stop at the end of it.

 

Unity’s Pathfinding

If you’re familiar with Unity, you may have heard that, being a nice little game engine, Unity provides its own pathfinding. In fact, the earliest versions of Where Shadows Slumber used Unity’s pathfinding.

However, Unity’s pathfinding didn’t end up being what we wanted for this game. In the same way that Unity’s Standard Shader was too detailed for out game, we found that Unity’s pathfinding gave the player too many options. Where Shadows Slumber was designed to be grid-based, whereas Unity’s pathfinding allows the player to roam around within different areas.

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Unity’s pathfinding

While this isn’t too bad – it wouldn’t be hard to use Unity’s pathfinding, but restrict it to a grid space – there is a reason we decided against using it. One of my professors always told me that ‘you can never know how efficient – or inefficient – a piece of code is, unless you wrote it yourself’. This is a piece of advice I have carried with me ever since, as I find it to be fairly accurate. Therefore, unless Unity’s pathfinding provides exactly what I want, it makes more sense to implement my own pathfinding system. That way, I can know exactly what’s good or bad about my system, what sacrifices I can make, and how best to use it.

Don’t get me wrong – Unity’s pathfinding is pretty cool, and if it makes sense for your game, you should use it. It’s just not the exact solution we needed, so we decided to implement our own.

So, that’s how pathfinding is implemented in Where Shadows Slumber! As I mentioned, I skipped over a lot of the finer details, but I hope this was a good, quick intro to the way that we implemented pathfinding and some of the choices we made.

If you have any questions or comments about pathfinding (or anything else), you can always find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.

 

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Jack Kelly is the head developer and designer for Where Shadows Slumber.