The Triangle of Truth

Hello again, everyone! It’s Frank again. I know you are all eagerly reading our weekly updates to find out when the game will be finished, but this week you may be disappointed. Rather than announcing a launch date, I’m going to explain to everyone the project management principles behind why Where Shadows Slumber has had such a long development cycle. We’re going to discuss the Triangle of Truth!

 

 


 

 

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The Triangle, Explained

The “Triangle” refers to a project management principle that has gone by many names, visualized in the image above. This diagram has been used to describe everything from project strategies and economic models to government healthcare systems and construction projects. It’s one of those mantras that just always seems to hold true, no matter the circumstances. When you are creating something, such as a mobile video game, you’d ideally like for it to be as good as possible for the cheapest cost and have a fast development cycle. Sadly, the edicts of being demand that you must sacrifice one side of the triangle to achieve the other two. As the desired two metrics increase, the sacrificed metric must decrease. Let’s define these bolded terms first, and then talk about Where Shadows Slumber.

Good: The product stands out among the crowd as something special. We want quality to be as high as possible.

Cheap: The cost incurred creating the product. (Not to be confused with the price a consumer pays for the final product) We want our cost to be as low as possible.

Fast: Time is money, so the sooner the project is done, the better. Life is short! We want our development cycle to be as short as possible.

When you see how Where Shadows Slumber lands on this diagram, everything will start to make sense.

 

We Chose “Good” and “Cheap”

Jack and I are two recent college graduates who teamed up together to make video games. The development of Where Shadows Slumber is not too dissimilar from the development of SkyRunner, our previous mobile game. We decided not to spend a truckload of money on the game, so that it could be as good as we can muster at the lowest personal cost. Essentially, we decided to spend time on the game rather than cash. This is because we have no money, so it was an easy decision.

That’s not to say that I’ve spent $0 on this game! It’s fair to say tens of thousands of dollars have gone toward the development of Where Shadows Slumber, easily. But our budget is a pittance compared to large indie studios and AAA development houses. The sides of the triangle have been chosen: we want a good game, and we can’t spend a lot of money, so we’ll just have to spend as long as it takes to get the job done.

What would Where Shadows Slumber look like if we sacrificed a different portion of the triangle? Let’s analyze where we are now, and then look at the others. Right now, we’re sacrificing time.

 

SACRIFICE: TIME  / /  GET: QUALITY, LOW COST

Time: We’ve been working on the game since the spring of 2015, and we’ll continue to work on it over the next few months. That’s a 3 year development cycle!

Cost: Game Revenant has spent ~$25,000 to pay our audio engineers, travel to conventions, and equipment. We work from our apartments and meet in coffee houses, so we don’t spend money on rent or utilities. Jack has a full-time job and I mooch off my generous, loving and forgiving family.

Quality: The game is superb, beautiful, and time-tested. We even created a free Demo that went through extensive user testing and has stood the test of time. This informed our approach to the final game, but it took a while to get to this point.

 

SACRIFICE: QUALITY  / /  GET: TIME, LOW COST

Quality: We always knew we wanted Where Shadows Slumber to be an awesome, premium mobile game. But if for some reason we decided to release a poorer quality version, we’d be done by now. What would happen if we sacrificed quality by having fewer puzzles, no meaningful story, and low-quality audio produced by Frank making noises with his mouth?

Time: We already created a rudimentary throwaway version back in 2015 when we first begun work on the game. We could have cut it off right there! Also, our Demo has been available for download since November 2016, so that gives you an idea of how much time we could have saved.

Cost: Obviously you don’t need to spend a lot of money if you don’t care about the final result. Jack and I could have just created a shorter, worse game and it only would have cost us a few app store developer fees (Apple, Google Play) and the cost of buying development devices for building and testing.

 

SACRIFICE: MONEY  / /  GET: QUALITY, FAST DEVELOPMENT

Cost: It is possible to get investors for indie games, either by getting a loan from the bank or by appealing to groups like Indie-Fund. Jack and I briefly considered this a year ago, but by that point we had put in so much of our own time, we felt like reaping the full benefits. (Remember – investors don’t give out money for free, they want a cut of the sales!) We could conceivably have gotten $500,000 – $1,000,000 to work on this game if we put our own money in and also got some investments. If we did…

Quality: Along with our personal efforts, we could have hired a small team of veteran developers to aid me and Jack. Veteran programmers would help Jack organize his code, and veteran artists would produce work superior to mine. With Jack and I to guide their efforts, we could take a management / visionary role and let the experts do the hard work. I think the quality would be the same it is now, but it would have gotten there faster. Speaking of which…

Time: My work would be cut in half if we paid an Animator / Character Gui* to handle all of the cutscenes and humanoid animation in the game. That would free me up to work purely on environments with Jack. On the development side, we could hire a full-time Quality Assurance Gui to test the game on various devices. A full-time Marketing Gui would handle our social media efforts, press relationships, and business travel. We could have also brought Alba and Noah into the fold a lot earlier, meaning most of their work would be done by now. Every gui we hire is another hat Jack and I don’t have to wear!

*Gui is a gender-neutral version of “guy” that we used to use in Off Center

 

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There Is Always A Drawback

It should be stated that when you sacrifice a portion of the triangle, you don’t get it back. There is always a cost. If you spend money, it’s gone. If you sacrifice quality, your game suffers. And if you spend three years working on a game, you suffer.

I’ve lived in isolation for a period of three years ( ! ), all the while neglecting personal relationships with friends and families, turned down jobs, rejected business opportunities, let my body grow fat, and forgone other personal life goals in order to work on Where Shadows Slumber for as many hours a day as possible. (Imagine my surprise when I discovered that women are not eager to date a man who spends 10 hours every day in front of a computer and rarely leaves the house. Shocker!)

Jack has been working his fingers to the bone every day at not one, but TWO tasks: his full-time work at a startup in NYC and his passion project Where Shadows Slumber. He’s written about this before on our blog, and I encourage you to read his past writing. I was particularly mortified at the mention of how he has to find small scraps of time throughout the day (30 minutes in the morning, 25 on the train, 45 between arriving home from work at night and making dinner) just to work on the game. I have no right to complain – in light of his sacrifice, my life is a breeze. What kind of person would lead their friend into this kind of a life?

I don’t mean to be dramatic, but the point of this blog post is that the toll is real. Choose your sides of the triangle carefully, because the side you scorn will stop at nothing to seek revenge.

 

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Where Shadows Slumber: Eventually Good

Miyamoto’s famous quote that “a delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad” may not be true anymore in a world where games can be patched and DLC can be sold. In a world where software is now a service, rushed games might eventually become good, given time.

However, this is also an industry where you live and die by your first impressions. Users don’t ever return to write a second review, and journalists move from game to game quickly. Jack and I are making a sacrifice of time to ensure that Where Shadows Slumber makes a splash when it hits the market. We can’t spend money we don’t have, but we can always put in just a bit more work.

Are you a game developer, artist, musician, writer, or creator working on a passion project? Feel free to share this blog post with your friends and family, especially if they have ever asked you “gee, when are you going to be done with this darn thing?” Let me know what they say in the comments below!

 

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This has been a project management blog from the creators of Where Shadows Slumber. 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), Facebookitch.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.

State of the Art – May 2018

Welcome to State Of The Art, May 2018 edition! This monthly progress report is written by Frank DiCola and is focused entirely on how the game’s visuals have improved in the past month.

It’s hard to believe the past month was just 30 days – everything feels so long ago, from our hilarious April Fool’s Day post to my trip to PAX East. As we wrap up production on the game, I find we have more work to do, not less. Not what I expected, but Jack and I are up to the task!

Missed last month’s State of the Art? The April edition is right here.

 

 

 


SPOILER WARNING: This post contains screenshots, GIFs and videos of later sections of the game. If you want to experience them in all their majesty for the first time on your mobile device when the game launches, don’t read on!


 

 

 

 

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More Gorgeous Menus

The GIF above is a little teaser of what I have for you in this update: two more Worlds have been polished and are now App-Store-ready. As I hinted at last time, I completed World 5 (the Hills) and World 6 (the Summit). Check out their Level Select menus! I know it seems weird to show these off, but I always love how they come out. It’s so cool for me to get an opportunity to visualize the game world from a different perspective. This 2D view allows you to appreciate the scale of Obe’s journey as he climbs to the top of a massive mountain towards the game’s end.

 

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The Rainswept Hills

These two Worlds posed a unique challenge to me because they take place in the wilderness. Up until this point, I tried to stick with my modular tool-set for as much of the game’s artwork as possible. However, sometimes you just can’t do that. When it comes to mountains, valleys, and rocks, they demand a jagged unevenness that just can’t be achieved by cookie-cutter pieces. Every Level in this World has a custom ridge that is 100% unique!

Jack will kill me if I show off every Level in this World, so I’ll have to settle for my two favorites. Level 5-2 has always looked great, but now that it’s raining like hell the Level has really come to life:

Then, towards the end of the Hills, we transition to a snowier climate. Obe is getting to the top of the mountain. He sees a cottage at the edge of the cemetery where he can rest for the night. Here is the last Level in this World:

I love doing weather effects because they really challenge me to think of how every tiny thing in the scene ought to change. Leave a comment and let me know what you think of “the Hills!”

 

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The Forgotten Castle at the Summit

Obe is making his way through a blizzard to a lonely, abandoned castle at the top of the mountain. Once again, I got the opportunity to polish the weather effects here and I think they look incredible. I can’t show off everything, so here’s a quick look at two different Levels.

The first is Level 6-1, “Pass.” Obe is making his way through the snow as he attempts to cross this old bridge. Thanks to Jack’s terrain setup, Obe will actually use different animations depending on what terrain he is standing on. Notice how he interacts differently with Buttons and bridges.

In the shadows, another kingdom is revealed. Are we looking into an alternate dimension? Perhaps the shadows are a window to the past? The future?

Level 6-4 takes place inside the castle. Now, a snowstorm rages outside as a lonely sentry patrols the entrance.

This World does some amazing things with shadows, so I don’t want to give too much of it away. It looks a million times better than where I left off a few months ago, so I appreciate the chance to come back and punch it up.

 

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Next Up: Cutscenes, Cutscenes, Cutscenes

Rather than move on to the final World of the game, I’m going to take the next few weeks to animate the game’s remaining story cutscenes. World 7 needs a bit of love right now, so Jack is going to spruce it up a bit before I make my glorious return to polish. Cutscenes are tough because every minute of animation is roughly 40 hours of work ( ! ) so I’m going to be nerding out in my room for a few more months, it seems. Two of the cutscenes have been animated and shown off at festivals, but they need sound. The other eight have not been started, although their scripts were written long ago.

At some point I may enlist Alba and Noah to help me input the sounds into the animation, because I think we can cover more ground that way. But as far as character animation goes, it’s just me and the keyframes. Some people at PAX East asked me if I ever use motion-capture for these short films. The answer is: No way! We don’t have a crazy setup like that at Game Revenant (read: at my apartment or Jack’s apartment). It’s all animated by hand, baby.

Wish me luck as I make my descent into animation hell. See you next month!

 

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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), Facebookitch.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.

Unity’s Performance Debugging Tools

Last week I discussed some of the basics of how rendering works in Unity. As I mentioned, all of that was setup for this week’s blog post. Since I’m working on rendering optimization now, I figured it would be a great time to go over the debugging tools Unity provides in order to aid rendering performance. Online resources can be a little scarcer for rendering than they are for other aspects of coding, so hopefully anyone who’s working on their own game might glean some useful information from this post. And even if you’re not working on anything right now, I hope you follow along and maybe learn a bit!

Unity is a nice little game engine, and, as such, it does a lot of the work for you. For the most part, when making a game, you don’t have to worry about the nitty-gritty stuff like rendering. When building for mobile, however (especially when you have specific graphics/lighting customization), you might have to descend into shader-land. Fortunately, Unity provides a few tools that can help you to deal with optimizing your rendering pipeline.

 

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Profiler

The first step in fixing rendering performance issues is to know about them. The best way to do that is with the Profiler window (Window -> Profiler). While you’re running your game, the Profiler keeps track of a lot of incredibly useful information, like how long each frame takes to render, split up by category. For instance, the Profiler will tell me that a frame took 60 milliseconds to run, 40 of which were due rendering and 15 from script execution, etc. This is the first place you should check when trying to improve performance – there’s no point in optimizing your rendering if it’s actually your scripts that are running slowly!

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So much information!

For the purposes of rendering, there’s an entire Profiler section! The Rendering Profiler keeps track of the number of batches, setPass calls, triangles, and vertices in each frame. Looking here for inconsistencies, spikes, and just high numbers in general is a good way to get an idea of why your game is taking so long to render. The Profiler also has a lot of other info that’s useful for diagnosing and debugging performance problems. I really recommend profiling your game and thoroughly looking through the results to get as much information about how your game is running as possible.

 

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Android Debug Bridge

While profiling in the editor is pretty useful, it doesn’t tell us much – of course our game will be fast on a great big computer, but how does it run on a crappy phone?

The is where ADB, or the Android Debug Bridge, comes in. ADB allows your computer to communicate with your Android phone about all sorts of stuff. Specifically (for our use cases), it allows you to profile your game while it’s running on a device. If you plug your phone into your computer, build the game directly to your phone, and open the profiler, you should see some results. This is the information we want, because it tells a much truer story about how your game runs on a phone.

Where Shadows Slumber, for instance, runs at ~200 fps in the Unity editor. When I plug my phone (the Google Pixel 2) into the profile, I get a framerate of ~60 fps. This is pretty good, so I know our game can run on newer devices. However, when I plug in my old phone (a broken HTC One M8), I get closer to ~12 fps. Looking at the profile during this run will give me much more useful information about what I should fix, since this is the device where performance is actually suffering. If you’re making any big decisions or changes based on profiler results, make sure those results come from your actual targeted device, and not just from the editor.

ADB usually comes with the Android SDK – if you have the Android SDK set up with Unity (which allows you to build to Android devices), then you should be able to use ADB with the profiler pretty painlessly.

I should also mention that there might be an equivalent tool for iOS debugging, but, as I do all of my development on a Windows machine, and all of my testing on an Android phone, I wouldn’t know what it is. Sorry!

 

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Frame Debugger

The next most important tool for rendering performance is the Frame Debugger (Window -> Frame Debugger). While the Profiler tells us a lot about what’s happening during rendering as a whole, it still treats the rendering process as a black box, not letting us see what’s actually happening. The is where the Frame Debugger comes in – it allows us to see, step by step, exactly what the GPU is doing to render our scene.

As I mentioned last week, the GPU renders the scene through a bunch of draw calls. The Frame Debugger allows us to see what each of those draw calls is drawing. This allows us to determine which materials/shaders are causing the most draw calls, which is one of the biggest contributors to rendering lag. It also provides a bunch of information about each draw call, such as the properties passed to the shader or geometry details. The important thing that it tells you is why this draw call wasn’t batched with the previous draw call.

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All of this happens in a single frame

Batching is Unity’s first defense against rendering lag, so it makes sense to batch as much stuff into a single draw call as possible. Because rendering is such a complex process, there are a lot of reasons why draw calls can’t be batched together – certain rendering components simply can’t be batched, meshes with too many vertices or negative scaling can’t be batched, etc. The frame debugger will tell you why each draw call isn’t batched with the previous one, so you can determine if there are any changes you can make that might reduce the number of draw calls, thereby improving rendering performance.

For example, in Where Shadows Slumber, we re-use meshes in certain places. Sometimes, if we require a “mirrored” look we’ll reuse a mesh, and then set the scale to -1. This was before we really looked into rendering performance, and, unfortunately, it causes problems – a mesh with negative scaling can’t be batched with a mesh with positive scaling, so this ends up creating multiple draw calls. Rather than setting the scale of the object to -1, we simply import a new, mirrored mesh and update the object, allowing these draw calls to be batched and improving performance.

 

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Stats

That’s it for the heavy-hitters; between the Profiler, Frame Debugger, and ADB, you should be able to get a pretty good idea of what’s going on in render-land. Unfortunately, digging through them can take a while – sometimes you just want a quick indicator of what’s going on in your scene. Enter the Stats window.

The Stats window (click “Stats” in the Game View) is a small overlay in the game view which gives you a quick rundown of various rendering indicators in real time. It’s not as in-depth, but it gives a much quicker picture of performance.

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That’s a lot of batches!

While it sounds like the stats window doesn’t add much – after all, the Profiler can give you the same information – I’ve found it to be very useful. The Profiler is probably better when you’re actively debugging rendering performance, but the stats window allows you to notice places where rendering performance might take a hit, even when you’re doing other things.

When I’m testing some other part of the game on my computer, I’m not going to notice any rendering lag, because my computer is so much more powerful than a phone. I’m also not going to be looking at the Profiler or Frame Debugger, because I’m not worrying about rendering at the moment. However, if I have the stats window open and I notice that the number of draw calls is in the hundreds, then I know something is going on. At that point I can get out the Profiler and see what’s happening – but I wouldn’t even have known there was anything amiss if it weren’t for the stats window.

 

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Scene View Draw Mode

As we get further and further down the list, we’re moving from “debugging all-star” to “it’s useful, but you probably won’t use it much”. Scene View Draw Modes fall into this category, but they’re still good to know about. You can access different Scene View Draw Modes by clicking the drop down menu at the top right of the scene view window.

The Scene View in Unity is one of the main windows that you use to make your game – it shows everything in the scene, allowing you to move around through the scene and select, move, rotate, scale, etc., any game objects. Usually the Scene View just displays the objects exactly as they would be displayed in the game. However, it has a bunch of other modes, and some of them are actually pretty useful. The two that I find the most useful when considering rendering concerns are listed below, although they’re all worth checking out:

Shaded Wireframe: This is my default draw mode, as it looks pretty similar to the normal shaded mode. The difference is that it also shows all of the triangles and vertices that you’re drawing. This is useful because certain shader operations are performed once for every vertex. Decreasing the number of vertices in your scene can give you a bit of a performance boost, and the shaded wireframe draw mode helps you see when you might have too many vertices.

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The shaded wireframe shows that there are too many polys.

Overdraw: This mode draws each object as a single transparent color. This makes it very easy to see when multiple objects are being drawn in the same spot on the screen. Since the GPU has to draw every pixel of each object (even if that pixel will be overwritten later), it ends up wasting some calculations. Areas that are very bright will waste even more calculations. Switching to this draw mode every so often lets you know if there are any places where you might want to remove some meshes.

 

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The Internet!

It should pretty much go without saying, but one of your best resources for debugging performance is the internet. Unfortunately, when it comes to rendering in Unity, the information out there is pretty scarce. Unlike with normal imperative coding, where you can simply Google “how to pathfinding” and get 30 implementations, you have to work a bit harder with rendering stuff. I find it’s best to do what you can and only resort to the internet with very specific questions. That said, there is still a lot of helpful information out there. You just have to know going in that only one of every three stack overflow questions makes any sense, and only one of every four Unity forum threads are using the most recent APIs. It’s like “Googling: Nightmare Mode”!

For anyone reading this post who is actually working on rendering stuff – I’m very, very sorry. I hope that this post and the tools I discussed help to shed at least a little bit of light in the dark underworld that is shader-land, and I hope you can achieve your rendering goals and make it back to the mortal realm before your soul is forever lost.

For everyone else who hasn’t done any rendering stuff, I hope you learned a bit, and that maybe I inspired you to get involved with some rendering code! It’s really not that bad, I promise!

 

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If you didn’t already have a working knowledge of rendering, I hope this post helped! If you do know about rendering stuff, I hope you don’t hate me too much for my imprecision! You can always find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, join the Game Revenant Discord, 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.

Rendering in Unity

As you probably know, Where Shadows Slumber is starting to ramp up toward a release this summer. It’s an exciting, terrifying time. We can’t wait to share the entirety of what we’ve been working on with the world, but there’s also a daunting amount of stuff to do, and not much time to do it.

If you’ve played any of the recent beta builds, hopefully you like what you’re seeing in terms of design, functionality, polish, art, and sound. Unfortunately, if you’ve played the beta on anything other than a high-end device, you’ve probably noticed something that you don’t like: lag.

Lag is annoying. Lag is something that can take a great game and ruin it. It doesn’t matter that your level design is perfect, your models are beautiful, and your music is entrancing if it only runs at 10 frames per second. If that’s the case, nobody is going to enjoy playing it. And, regrettably, that happens to be the case for Where Shadows Slumber.

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Like butta’!

So, one of my biggest tasks before we release is to optimize the game, making it run faster and allowing us to have higher frame rates. The area with the most opportunity for improvement is during rendering. A game consists of a lot of logic – Obe’s location, things changing in shadow, etc. – but rendering is the process of actually drawing the scene onto the pixels of your screen.

Earlier this week, I started a post about the different tools you can use to help optimize your rendering performance. It seemed like a good idea, since that’s exactly what I was doing. However, I realized that if you don’t know how rendering works in the first place, most of it is complete gibberish. So I’m gonna leave that post for next week, and this week I’ll give a quick introduction to how 3D rendering works in Unity.

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Rendering

Rendering is the process by which the objects in your game are drawn to the screen. Until it’s rendered, an object in your game is just a collection of information about that object. That information gets translated from information the game engine understands into information the GPU can understand. There are a few important concepts to understand here:

  • An object’s mesh describes the shape of the object. It consists of a collection of vertices and triangles.
  • An object’s material is a description of how that object should be drawn. It encapsulates things like colors and shininess.
  • Every material uses a shader. This is the program which calculates exactly what color each pixel should be, based on the information in the mesh and material.
  • World space is the 3D coordinate space in which all of your game objects live.
  • Screen space is a 2D coordinate space that represents the screen to which the game is drawn.

The basics of rendering are pretty easy to understand, at least from a high-level view. The meshes for the objects in your game are translated from world space to screen space, based on the camera that’s doing the rendering. For instance, in Where Shadows Slumber, objects that are further away in the x-axis will be higher up and more to the right when viewed on the screen. Fortunately, we don’t have to mess with this too much – Unity’s cameras do a good job of making this translation.

Once we know where each pixel should be drawn, we need to determine what color that pixel should be – this is where the material and shader come in. Unity provides a whole bunch of information to the shader (position, angle, information about lights in the scene, etc.). The shader uses that information, plus the information from the material, to determine exactly what color the given pixel should be. This happens for every pixel on the screen, resulting in a beautiful picture of exactly what you expect to see.

The GPU

Now that we understand the basics of rendering, let’s take a deeper look into how it actually happens: the GPU.

The GPU, or graphics processing unit, is the part of the computer in charge of calculating the results of our shaders to determine a pixel’s color. Since modern phones have over 2 million pixels, our shader code must be run over 2 million times per frame – all within a fraction of a second.

How does the GPU manage to do so many calculations so quickly? It’s due to the design of the GPU, and can be summed up in one very important sentence: the GPU is good at performing the same operation, a bunch of times, very quickly. The key thing to remember here is that it’s good at performing the same operation; trying to perform different operations is what slows it down.

Specifically, switching from one material to another causes a bit of a hiccup in terms of speed. The properties of the material are passed to the GPU as a set of parameters in what is known as a SetPass call. SetPass calls are one of the first and most important indicators when it comes to optimizing rendering performance, and are often indicative of how quickly or slowly your game will run.

Because SetPass calls take so long, Unity has a strategy for avoiding them called batching. If there are two objects that have the same material, that means they have the same parameters passed to the GPU. This means that those parameters don’t need to be reset in between drawing the two objects. These two objects can be batched, so the GPU will draw them at the same time. Batching is Unity’s first line of defense against rendering slowness.

The CPU

While the GPU is the star of the show when it comes to rendering, the CPU, or central processing unity, still does some important stuff that’s worth mentioning (even if it doesn’t have a huge bearing on the optimization steps we’ll be taking). Of course, the CPU is in charge of running your game, which includes all of the non-shader code you’ve written for it, as well as any under-the-hood things Unity is doing, like physics and stuff.

The CPU does a lot of the “set up” for rendering, before the GPU comes in and does the heavy number-crunching. This includes sending specific information to the GPU, including things like the positions of lights, the properties of shadows, and other details about the scene and your project’s rendering config.

One of the more important rendering-related things the CPU does is called culling. Since the CPU knows where your camera is, and where all of your objects are, it can figure out that some objects won’t ever be viewed. The GPU won’t know this, and will still perform calculations for those objects. In order to avoid doing these unnecessary calculations, the CPU will first remove any of the objects that won’t be drawn, so the GPU never even knows about them.

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All of these Hitlers would be culled by the CPU (image credit: smbc-comics.com)

Since we’re talking about performance, it should be noted that the GPU and the CPU are two different entities. This means that, if your game is experiencing lag, it’s likely due to either the GPU or the CPU, but not both. In this case, improving the performance of the other component won’t actually make your game run any faster, because you’ll still be bottlenecked by the slower process.

So, now that we know a little bit more about how rendering actually happens, maybe we can use that knowledge to improve performance! At least, that’s what I’m hoping. If Where Shadows Slumber never comes out, then you’ll know I’ve failed. Either way, I’ll see you next week for a look into the tools you can use to help you optimize rendering performance in Unity!

 

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If you didn’t already have a working knowledge of rendering, I hope this post helped! If you do know about rendering stuff, I hope you don’t hate me too much for my imprecision! You can always find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, join the Game Revenant Discord, 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.

State of the Art – April 2018

Welcome to State Of The Art, April 2018 edition! This monthly progress report is written by Frank DiCola and is focused entirely on how the game’s visuals have improved in the past month.

Missed last month’s State of the Art? The March edition is right here.

Also, don’t be fooled by our last blog post. The “Easter edition” of our blog was actually just the Where Shadows Slumber April Fool’s gag for the year. We hope it gave you a few laughs! Don’t worry, we aren’t adding any of that stuff to the game.

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Sorry Caroline – no skins!

We all had fun making that, but now it’s back to work. Here’s the State of the Art!

 

 


SPOILER WARNING: This post contains screenshots, GIFs and videos of later sections of the game. If you want to experience them in all their majesty for the first time on your mobile device when the game launches, don’t read on!


 

 

 

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Mustard River

The infamous “mustard river” is now complete! These Levels used to be in real rough shape, but now I love the way our ashen rocks contrast with the yellow of the water. This World is home to Walkers, a mechanic we introduce in the first River Level. I won’t drone on too long, because I think these GIFs speak for themselves. Enjoy!

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Level 2-1, “Docks”

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Level 2-2, “Cage”

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Level 2-3, “Guide”

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Level 2-4, “Ebb”

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Level 2-5, “Ferry”

There are new Walkers, too! For a long time, the denizens of the River were weird copies of Obe in scraggly shorts. As you may have noticed from the GIFs above, I gave them a bit more unique personal features, such as different hats or clothing. Overall, they probably still look too much like generic video game zombies. Regardless, I hope people will realize as they play the game that these Walkers are to be pitied, not feared.

 

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Check Out Our Snazzy Level Select Menu

I’m really proud of the Level Select menu that Jack and I have been working on together. Rather than just do a few buttons with numbers on them, we really went all out to create a beautiful experience that takes you through the story of the game as you choose what Level you’d like to play. Check them out in action!

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When the full game is done, this menu will be the best place to track your progress. How many Levels have you completed? How many are left? Which ones would you like to return to, to show your friends? During gameplay however, the Player won’t be directed here too often, since Levels flow directly from one into the other.

 

 

 

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Polish: The Home Stretch

I have begun the process of finishing the game’s final 15 Levels. These puzzles have been finished for a while, and they even have some “first draft” art. However, as I say all the time, my goal for each Level is to make it look like my favorite Level, and make the player say “oh wow, I love the look of this one.” That’s a delicate process that takes a lot of time – many, many hours spent per Level!

CemeteryRain

 

So right now I have just one of the final 15 to show you today, and you can see it above. This is in World 5, The Hills, and it’s called Cemetery. It features tombstones that turn into ghosts when you cover them in shadow. The theme of the World is putting these spirits to rest in their graves.

This Level is nearly complete – there are two tiny touches I’m dying to put in. First, I want to give that Draggable pillar a bit more personality. Right now it’s just a green hyperrectangle (Jack taught me that’s what a 3D rectangle is) but it should feel like it belongs more. Second, I want to add animated blades of grass that bounce and bob along with the rhythm of the falling rain. Personally, I think making convincing rain is more about the effect the raindrops have on the ground rather than seeing actual particles in midair. When it rains in real life, what’s easier to see: the rain in midair as it falls to Earth, or the water collecting in puddles on the ground or forming little rivers? Observe the world around you next time there’s a storm. I’m right!

Anyway, those changes all take a lot of love so I’ll be poring over it more this week before I head off to PAX East!

 

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Last But Not Least – The iPhone X!

I finally bit the bullet and purchased the iPhone X so we can test how the game works on its sleeker, thinner, taller (!) screen. The phone is beautiful and feels great, and you can see a proof of life photo above. Jack will probably have to do some programmer-fu to make the camera zoom out a bit on these phones, but that’s fine. I love playing on the iPhone X because of how smooth it is, so a little camera troubles are no problem at all!

That’s about it for this month’s art update. I wish I could have gotten a bit more done, but we had to attend SXSW earlier this month and I spent a lot of time preparing the art for that build. It was a great show, but travel always takes time away from being in the “flow” of creating artwork. Since I’ll be at PAX East this weekend, you can expect the same lame excuse next time!

We’re nearing the final days of working on Where Shadows Slumberwhich is a really weird thing to think about. I suppose we’ll still be doing a lot of post-launch stuff, but I’m not sure what I’ll do all day, every day once the game is done. Anyway, I know what I’ll be doing all day, every day in April… [ o_o] ART!

See you next month for another update!

 

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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), Facebookitch.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.

Easter: SXSW Feedback, Release Date, and More!

Hey everyone! We have a new Easter tradition at Game Revenant, where we go over some of the feedback Jack and I received when we were at the South By Southwest music festival earlier this month.

Overall, the reception to the game was really positive – but we’ve been trying to iterate quickly on some of the ideas you guys have been giving us. So without further ado, here’s the top three pieces of feedback we received at the show, and our responses!

 

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Feedback #1: The Stakes Are Too Low

Jack and I envisioned Where Shadows Slumber as a relaxing puzzle game made in the mold of mobile classics like Monument ValleyLara Croft: GO, and Valley of War Adventure Run. Because of that, there are no enemies in the game, or any way for Obe (the protagonist) to die. We didn’t want you to have to restart a puzzle in the middle of a Level just because you couldn’t react to something in time. In the image above, this Walker won’t damage or hurt Obe because he’s just there to serve as an obstacle in the puzzle.

However, our fans have made their voices heard loud and clear: the stakes are too low in our game! There is no tension. There is no excitement. There needs to be violence. There needs to be a way for Obe to die. With precious few months of development time remaining, we are dedicating considerable resources to this piece of feedback. Our response?

Response #1: Obe Can Die In Terrible, Confusing Ways!

Now, thanks to some quick redesigning and a few late nights programming, Obe can die randomly in the middle of gameplay if he steps on Death Spikes. (Development name, subject to change) Here’s what they look like in-game:

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“How will I ever get past this important intersection?”

One of our more controversial ideas is Secret Death Spikes. The idea is that they’ll be scattered all over the map, so the player doesn’t know where they are. Then, when a Player steps on one, Obe’s flesh is ripped apart and his head is sent flying:

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That’s how they gecha…

We’ll push this build out to our internal testing group and see what they think! Now, you might be wondering what happens when you die. Philosophers have been trying to sort that one out for millennia! But in Where Shadows Slumber, you’ll lose one of your precious lives and restart the Level.

How do you get more lives? Read on!

 

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Feedback #2: This Game Won’t Make Money

Jack and I also envisioned Where Shadows Slumber as a straight-up pay-once premium title that doesn’t utilize any exploitative monetization schemes to bilk people out of their hard earned cash. Our belief was that if we were very honest with the community, they would reward us by purchasing the game at a fair market price and leaving a positive review on the App Store.

The feedback from the community has been monolithic: don’t do this! Trusting people to seek out fair trades in the marketplace is a fool’s errand. People are morons! Obviously they’ll never pay for a thing when they could not pay for a not thing. It’s so obvious!

Response #2: Loot Boxes Will Make Money!

We’ve become convinced that the premium model is no longer viable, and that modified premium models (such as a try-before-you-buy model) are not viable either. The people have spoken: they want free games with micro-transactions, in-game advertisements, and timers! 2018 is here, and we dare not defy the calendar year.

“Our goal is to make sure people can pay enough money to basically not even have to play the game.”

For this reason, shiny loot boxes are being added into the game and Where Shadows Slumber is officially going free-to-play! Loot boxes can be earned in-game by logging in once per financial quarter, but they can also be purchased via the main menu if you’re in a hurry! Inside every shiny loot box, you’ll have a chance to get an array of dizzying prizes. Just look at all of the cosmetic skins you can equip Obe with:

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Left to right: Classic Obe, Spanish Inquisition Obe, Breath of the Wild Obe, ISIS Obe

But we won’t stop at just cosmetic items. Loot boxes aren’t fun unless they have a satisfying, tangible effect on the virtual world. We’re partnering with Electronic Arts to bring their popular Star Card system from Star Wars: Battlefront II into Where Shadows Slumber! People just can’t stop talking about about about about about about about these Star Cards. That’s how fun & satisfying they are!

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Actual percentages included above, pursuant to Line 3 of Section 15 of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006

Star Cards in Where Shadows Slumber will allow you to power up Obe to make him the incredible puzzle-action hero of your dreams. If you don’t get a Star Card from a loot box, don’t feel bad! You can use the colorful Shadow Dust you’ve stockpiled to upgrade your Star Cards. Powerups include running faster, more lives-per-day, auto-skipping Levels, auto-skipping cutscenes, auto-skipping the credits, and even giving Obe a gun during cutscenes!

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“Go ahead. Make my day.”

Why lootboxes, you ask? Here’s a quote from Jackson H. Kelly, our Chief Monetization Officer: “Our goal is to make sure people can pay enough money to basically not even have to play the game. We want to take the stressful, mentally challenging experience of solving a puzzle, and turn that into a swift, painless transaction.”

When asked what could justify such a sudden change, he said “People like paying for things at a cash register more than they enjoy playing games, so we’re going to encourage that.”

EA could not be reached for a statement.

 

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Feedback #3: Why Isn’t The Game Done Yet?

Jack and I also envisioned Where Shadows Slumber being released on the App Store and Google Play sometime during our lifetimes. However, due to the time constraints placed on this lil’ indie team (not to mention all of these exciting changes) we have not been able to get the game out the door just yet. However, fans are understandably frustrated. (see above) They want a release date to be announced! Today, I am proud to announce the date Where Shadows Slumber will be available for purchase on the App Store…

Answer #3: We’re Launching On Nov. 24th, 2067!

Just imagine. 2067. The “future” – at least, that’s what they used to call it. Now they just call it The Rinks. A beautiful array of orange cyber leaves crunch under your cyber boots as you walk down the idyllic cybewalk to the home you grew up in. Some punk kids skate by, chatting in a language that’s a mix of English, North Korean, and Blockchain. You walk through the front door (literally) to find your “family” huddled around a cyber television, tuned to the color of a dead sky. It’s Thanksgiving Day, 2067. What will you talk about with the androids that replaced your family? The ongoing war between Earth and Mars? The debate over the effectiveness of flying autonomous self-driving cars vs. self-automating driving flyers?

Never fear – there’s a brand new game available on the App Store called Where Shadows Slumber that you can download free of charge! Running on sleek, state-of-the-fifty-years-ago technology, Where Shadows Slumber is a free-to-play lootbox collecting game where one wrong move will rip the flesh from your cyber, cyber bones.* We hope you enjoy playing it as much as we enjoyed spending our entire lives creating it!

*Puzzles sold separately

 

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Got More Feedback?

Jack and I are suckers for feedback. We just love hearing it! We just can’t get enough of your sweet, sweet, comments, haha, ha. My multiple chins and I are standing by, ready and willing to answer any and all emails, tweets, and creepy text messages you send me. Rest assured that if you contact Game Revenant with some feedback about Where Shadows Slumber, I will do my best to respond in 1-2 business years.

Thanks for reading this special edition of the blog, and Happy Easter by some strange coincidence!

 

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Happy March 32nd, ya filthy animal. Our regular blog posts will resume on Tuesdays, as always. You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.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.

Creating a Level: From Concept to Finished Product

For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a post about how we make Levels when working on Where Shadows Slumber. The only problem was a lack of documentation. I forgot to take screenshots of the early stages of the Levels we’ve completed so far. What I really wanted to do was show our audience the growth of a Level, from it’s earliest conception and then show the various stages of the design process along the way.

When I thought of this idea, I tabled the blog and decided to wait until I started on a new batch of Levels… and here we are! We’re going to take an inside look at Level 3-1, Noria, the first Level of the Aqueduct World.

 

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Step 1: Draw The Level

Every Level has a reason for being in the game. Noria is the first Level in the Aqueduct World, which makes it extra special. Whenever we design the first Level of a World, we like to communicate to the Player:

  • Why the World is going to feel different from the other Worlds in the game
  • What mechanics you’ll be dealing with in this World – especially new ideas

For the Aqueduct, we wanted to make it all about mechanical devices, switches, rotating things and whirring machines. Our game doesn’t exactly have a precise historical setting, but it’s fair to say it isn’t modern day. This gives us some leeway with technology. It has to work, but it can look really old.

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Jack’s notebook!

The Aqueduct World is all about Buttons. Buttons are Nodes that do something when you step onto them. There are all kinds of Buttons, but the most basic Button does a thing every time you step on it, no matter how many times you step on it.

To show that off, Jack designed a Level (above) where the only way to cast shadows and move the light was with a single Button. In addition to that, there are Buttons near each light in the Level to turn them on and off. The proximity of the light to the Button it’s attached to is an intuitive connection. These Buttons work like regular domestic light switches too, so it’s a cheap way of using existing Player knowledge about the real world and transmuting it into knowledge of our game.

When a Level exists in this form, the only thing we can really do is discuss it. Jack will attempt to guide a very confused Frank through the mechanics of the Level. I’ll try to poke holes in it (literally, with my pencil) and find problems with the design. We’ve never shown these sketches to testers because it’s too high-level for them to understand. If we like the idea of the Level, Jack makes a grey box prototype of it in Unity for us to test.

 

Noria-Greybox

This Level doesn’t look too special yet, huh? Just wait!

Step 2: Make A Grey-Box Prototype Level

With a design solidified, now we’re ready to make a version of the Level that can be played and tested. It doesn’t need to look pretty yet, so we use basic template cubes to represent walkable space. Affectionately called grey box prototypes, this technique is how we prototype every Level in the game. Watch a video of me beating the Level below:

As you can see, it’s playable in this stage, and everything works. You can solve the puzzle, which means testers can assess the strength of our design. (We just tell them to ignore the visuals.) We brought this Level, in this format, to AwesomeCon 2017 looking for feedback from players. When we show grey box prototypes to people, we want to make sure they can complete the puzzle. More than that, we want to make sure that they solved it on purpose instead of just by brute force. If we get good feedback, we proceed to Step 3.

 

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Step 3: Draw Some Concept Art

This might seem backward, but this is the time when I draw a concept image of the Level. Why do I do this after the Level has been prototyped, and not before? It’s because Jack knows best which Nodes need to go where, and I don’t. I need to take cues from him about where everything must be, which often includes the actual length and width of shadow casting objects.

This is actually beneficial. It gives me good constraints to work with. I draw a paper sketch and say, “OK, if everything absolutely has to be in this location, what can I do with it? What makes sense for the setting [Aqueduct] whether it’s man-made or organic?” As you can see in the drawing, the following ideas have been spawned:

  • Obe should enter from a pipe (bottom right) to match the cutscene that plays directly before this Level.
  • The pillar now looks like it belongs – it’s a crumbling structural element of the Aqueduct, a man-made structure in disrepair.
  • The mechanism by which the lamp moves left to right is not just a magical back-and-forth switch. Now it’s a waterwheel! Why a wheel? Google “Noria”…
  • The lights need to look like actual man-made lights since they are powered by Buttons on the ground. Why not lamps?
  • There are stone pathways going horizontally that have crumbled over time. Those need to be repaired by shadows.
  • The bridges going vertically are metal grates that allow water to pass under them. This is an Aqueduct, we can’t just have standing water blocked in!
  • There’s a back wall with a door. I like to give the Player as many visual cues as possible that the finish line is an actual exit.

The concept art phase is another chance for us to critique the design. If we know the puzzle is good, but it produces an awkward-looking Level, we have the opportunity to reconfigure things. Perhaps the exit needs to be in a different place? Maybe objects should be closer or further apart? Now is the time to match the design to the intended context, the Aqueduct. Once I have good concept art to work from, I proceed to Step 4!

 

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Step 4: First Aesthetic Pass

Now it’s time to take that ugly grey box prototype (sorry Jack) and make it look and sound beautiful! I’m ready to apply my toolkit of Aqueduct paths, walls and bridges to the design. Once the art is laid down, Alba and Noah have their first chance to put some audio effects into the Level and set the mood. It makes a huge difference: now the Level doesn’t sound like it takes place in a silent death vacuum! Creepy chimes and rushing water converge to give the Level a sense of place. Here’s a video of it all in action:

The Level doesn’t look grey anymore! That’s awesome. But… it also doesn’t look finished, does it? This kind of art would pass for a student game or something in a game jam, but we want to be an App Store Editor’s Pick and win a ton of awards. That means the art needs to be worth the price people paid to download the game. It needs to be extraordinary! It needs to be… polished.

 

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Step 5: Aesthetic Polish

Polish is a game design term for taking your finished product and finishing it again so it’s even better – much like shining a shoe with shoe polish. You want to make your Level shine! If you’re making an island paradise, it needs to be the most relaxing paradise the player has ever experienced. If it’s a scummy slum in a city, you need to make that slum as dirty as possible. Everything needs to be pushed to the extreme.

My personal philosophy is that I want to turn every Level in the game into my favorite one. Obviously, I know that can’t happen. But at least while I’m working on it, I can take something boring and give it life. Speaking of which, this is usually where animation enters the picture.

animate (verb)

1530s, “to fill with boldness or courage,” from Latin animatus past participle of animare “give breath to,” also “to endow with a particular spirit, to give courage to, enliven,” from anima “life, breath”

Animation is the most time-consuming part of aesthetic design, and it requires a lot of setup as well. It makes sense for this to come last. But it’s definitely the most important artistic layer. Bad video games tend to feel frozen and stale: great games are always in motion, even when everything appears still. I think our modern brains are conditioned to assume that a screen containing no motion is frozen, as if the app crashed. If you look at games with a high level of polish (Blizzard’s Hearthstone comes to mind), there’s always something moving around to give the player the illusion of life. The goal of polish is to make your game appear to crackle with the spark of life. See for yourself:

Pretty different, huh? Our water shader adds some much needed liveliness to the water, and makes it feel like a rushing stream. Buttons now move and bounce under Obe’s weight. An animated glyph on the ground lets you know where you’ve just clicked. The lamp posts are now chains dangling from the ceiling, which lets them sway gently on a loop.

The other perk of animation is that it allows you to add a third sense to the game: touch (or, feel). In a very real sense, players can only experience your game using their eyes and ears. But if you do your job right as a game designer, certain elements in your game will make the player feel things. Have you ever gotten hit in a video game and exclaimed out loud “ow!” after seeing what happened to your avatar? You didn’t actually feel pain, but something about the experience was immersive enough that it made you connect with your character. That’s what polish is for. That’s how games rise to the top!

 

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forever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever

Step 6: You Never Finish, This Goes On Forever

Here’s the dirty little secret about my strategy for artistic polish: I’ll never be finished. I will never finish this game. I will work on this game every day until I am dead. It doesn’t even matter if I’m improving the artwork, even if I’m actively making everything worse I will never finish anything in this game.

Whoops! That’s not what I meant to say. Where was I?

Eventually, you need to stop working on a Level so you can move on. This is always a heartbreaking moment in game development. If I could choose any superpower, I would choose a very specific one – the ability to do things on my computer without time slipping through my fingers like grains of sand into an endless void.

[  . _ . ]

You have to move on so you can finish the rest of your game, so when do you do that? It’s at the point where your hours of input are only reaping very marginal gains. People won’t spend an eternity looking at your Levels, so you shouldn’t spend an eternity working on them either. If anything looks truly awful at launch, you can always sneakily patch in fixes that you missed. Just say you’re fixing bugs. and blame the programmer!

Besides, I can always improve the artwork again when we remaster Where Shadows Slumber for BlackBerry…

 


 

I’ve been working on this blog post for too long, and now my hours of writing input are reaping only marginal gains. Time to end this post. Thanks for looking at this inside scoop into our process! If you’re wondering why game development takes so long, imagine doing this for all 38 Levels in the game. That’s not even including the cutscenes…

Say, that gives me an idea for another blog post!

 

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We hope you enjoyed this deep dive into our development process. You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter directly using the handle @GameRevenant, find us on Facebookitch.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.