State of the Art – August 2018

Welcome to the State Of The Art, August 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 July edition is right here.

 


For Our Eyes Only

A quick note, before we dive in… since this is the final State of the Art, it’s going to be a little bit underwhelming. Sorry about that! The game is so close to being finished that Jack and I don’t really want to release any more images or footage until Where Shadows Slumber is uploaded onto the App Store. In the past, journalists have accidentally used our old images of previous builds (including our 2016 Demo!) in their articles instead of new stuff. For that reason, we’re trying to put some distance between our progress related uploads and the launch of the game.

If you were lucky enough to visit us this past weekend at Play NYC, you got a chance to play the final pre-release build of the game! As you would have seen, all of the art is totally done with the exception of a few cutscenes that need some polish. We brought a build that had every Level and Cutscene in the game, so we got a chance to see people play every part of the finished build. Two brave souls even dedicated a few hours (across both days) to finishing the entire game! So even though there are no new images in this article, rest assured that this is a good sign of progress, and not a bad sign that I’ve been sitting on my hands the past 6 weeks!

Thank you so much for following this blog, and I apologize for the lack of juicy spoiler images. You’ll have to wait until the game launches on iOS and Android later this year to feast your eyes on the beauty that is Where Shadows Slumber. Until then, enjoy these sweet black rectangles!

 

 

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Art, Then and Now

The last State of the Art was written on July 3rd. At the time, the only pieces of art left to do were the game’s last four cutscenes – World 5, World 6, World 7, and an animated Credits sequence. Small artistic touch-ups were needed across the game’s many Levels, as well as a few art related bugs.

Those last four cutscenes are all nearly complete. I say nearly because, since time is of the essence, I animated them just far enough so that our wonderful audio team could take over and begin creating sound effects. Today, in an effort to finally finish the game, I’ll put the last little details into these scenes. These details include things like snowy footprints or rustling trees – background information that isn’t necessary, but helps to paint a better picture of the scene. I know Jack is eager to crunch every Level and Cutscene so we can have a fully 100% optimized game, so right now it’s more important to call these scenes done than to obsess over the details. I shall spend not one more day on them!

Other than that, there are some release prep things I still need to do. I try to focus on tasks that involve other people first, which means I put off some solo projects like the game’s app icon, app preview video, press kit, and our release date announcement trailer. We’re not announcing our release date yet, but [spoiler] when we do it will be in the form of a cool trailer! We’ve heard that’s the best way to generate buzz for the game. Hopefully our efforts these past 2 years to “pre-market” the game mean that when the trailer hits YouTube there is a large group of fans eager to share it around social media.

 

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Thoughts on The Ending

Soon, I will stop being the artist on Where Shadows Slumber and become Mr. Bug Finder. Then, in the weeks before the game hits the App Store, I’ll be Mr. Marketer. After that, I’ll be Mr. Salesman as I go on the Extremely Real and Actually Real Where Shadows Slumber World Tour! (Buy our game so we can do this)

It’s so strange to think that in just a few days, I won’t be modeling environments or animating these characters ever again. Saying goodbye is a bit of a relief, but it’s also disturbing. It feels a bit like leaving a job at a company without having another one lined up. And I’m not talking about the financial success of the game (we have no idea what to expect… $500? $500,000?) but rather my own personal sense of purpose. I never thought I would feel totally lost right at the moment our three year passion project is about to hit prime-time. Is this normal? How am I supposed to feel?

Anyway, this is the State of the Art blog, not the State of Frank’s Mind blog. Let me save my goopy tell-all for a podcast appearance with Jack sometime. (Speaking of which, even if you have the tiniest, most insignificant YouTube channel or podcast, invite one of us on! We love to talk! Contact info in the signature below) All you need to know right now is that the art is 98% finished and we’re heading into our final Quality Assurance (QA) stretch.

Stay tuned to this blog for mega updates about the game, tales from QA hell, and maybe even a comedic play-by-play of our upcoming Xcode struggle. Thanks to Jack for giving me a good name for this blog, and thanks to everyone who has been keeping tabs on us. I may resurrect this monthly recap if we have new art updates, such as when we port the game to Amazon’s Alexa, but right now I’m looking forward to wearing a different hat for a while.

See you next week!

 

 

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Thanks for reading this entirely text-based art update! If you’re new to this blog, 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.

Crunch and Burn(out)

If you’ve been following the development of Where Shadows Slumber, then you know that we’ve been working on it for a while. It was early 2015 when the core concept first came to me. Three years ago this month was when I put together the first proof-of-concept to show to Frank. The demo version of the game has been out for over a year and a half.

Game development takes a long time, especially with a tiny team, little to no funding, a full-time job, and, the biggest time-waster of all, life itself. As Frank discussed in a previous blog post, we are holding ourselves to a pretty high standard for Where Shadows Slumber, which makes development even slower.

Fortunately, after all this time, we’re finally closing in on the end. As happy as that might make you, the fans of the game, there are two people who are definitely happier about it than you are: us. As frustrated as you might be about how long it’s taking, we’re even more frustrated. Frankly, as much as we love Where Shadows Slumber, neither of us can wait until the moment it’s over.

“But Jack”, you ask incredulously, “if you love it, why do you want it to be over? You’ve managed to work on it for three years – what’s another few months?”

There are two phenomena that often creep up at around the same time in the development cycle of a game (or any project, really). Here they both are, followed by something I’ve said in the past week that represents each of them:

  • Crunch – “There’s only a little bit of work left, but there’s even less time left!”
  • Burnout – “I’ve spent so long on this game, I’m just sick of it!”

 

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Crunch

I’ve discussed before the “ninety-ninety” rule, so I’ll just summarize it quickly here, since it’s relevant: not only does software development take a long time, it takes significantly longer than you think it will. This is an issue when you first start your project (“it’ll probably only take 18 months or so”), but there’s no scheduled release date or external pressure at that point. Nobody really cares yet! However, it becomes a bigger issue when dealing with shorter time periods. For some reason, people have a hard time realizing that their estimates are wrong and adjusting (at least, we do). Because of that, we’re still making poor estimates for how long something will take!

This is the reason that developers inevitably end up in the dreaded state known as crunch time. We thought there were about 6 weeks of work left, but it turns out there were 12 weeks of work left. Too bad we already gave a bunch of outside parties a solid release date! Since they’re now depending on us to meet those deadlines, we have to do 12 weeks worth of work in 6 weeks!

This is the phenomenon that leads to crazy overtime, too many all-nighters, and an incredible amount of stress. If you follow game design, you’ve probably heard about it, because it somehow ends up happening to pretty much every game. If you’re involved in game design, then you’ve probably gone through it, and you know how awful it can be.

It’s a little better for us than for bigger, more established studios – we don’t have employees to pay, stockholders to appease, or a public release date to hit. That said, we don’t want Where Shadows Slumber to turn into an indie game for which development takes forever that people are perennially waiting for. It’s now or never!

 

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Burnout

Cascading into crunch time at full speed is pretty bad, but it’s not the worst thing in the world – we’re been working on Where Shadows Slumber for a long time, and we are both willing to put in a little extra time as we reach the end. However, one of the biggest problems is that crunch time is also usually accompanied by burnout.

When you’re just starting out on a project, everything is pretty exciting. You enjoy working on interesting problems like pathfinding and game mechanics, and you don’t even mind fixing any bugs that come up. On the other hand, once you’ve been working on a game for a long time, you’re pretty much sick of it. All of the interesting stuff is already implemented, so the only things left to work on are tiny quality improvements (“does this look better when the position is 0.4 or 0.41? How about 0.42?”), annoying, subtle, or hard-to-reproduce bugs (“this was working last week, but a change to a different piece of code is somehow causing it to break, but only ~10% of the time”), and tasks that you intentionally avoided because they aren’t interesting or fun (“how many setPass calls will this scene render when running on a 6-year old Android phone? Is that too many?”).

None of these tasks are really very enjoyable – so not only has your excitement about the work decreased, but so has the objective fun-ness of the work that’s left to do. This leaves you in a state of never actually wanting to work on the project. Combine that decreased drive with the increased amount of work you have to do, and it starts to become pretty obvious why the end of development for a game tends to get pretty hairy, and why we’re looking forward to being done with it.

 

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The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Don’t worry, though – it’s not all bad! We’re both still really excited about Where Shadows Slumber, because of the amount of work we’ve put into it. We’re both dedicated to the cause, and we’re not gonna let a little extra work put a stop to it (even if it ends up slowing us down).

The purpose of this blog post is two-fold. On one, more selfish hand, I want to offer up to our adoring fans an explanation for why we haven’t finished the game yet. We know a lot of you love the game, and are really looking forward to it, and many of you have shown us that by popping up and saying hi at various conventions. The past 8 months or so have been a real whirlwind, both personally and professionally, and our timeline has been shifting around quite a bit as a result. So I wanted to offer a bit of an explanation, as well as reassure you that we’re still working on Where Shadows Slumber, and we’re not gonna let it fall by the wayside!

The other reason for this post is to serve as a sort of warning, albeit a likely redundant one. For anyone working on their own game (or any project, really), it’s very important to take time management seriously. Ending up in the crunch time/burnout trap is an awful place to be. Despite this, most developers (indie and AAA alike) end up here, because it’s hard for people to grasp how time-consuming the last 10% of a project can be. So, if you take away anything from this post, I hope you do your best to allow enough time at the end of development to get your game out without ending up there. You’ll end up there anyway, but maybe by knowing about it ahead of time, you won’t be there for long.

 

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You can always find out more about our game and how freaking long it’s taking us to finish it 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.

Audio Update: Voice Recording

Last week, I visited Alba and Noah at their home studio in Queens to record some vocals for Where Shadows Slumber. (If you have no idea who I’m talking about, read the intro blog they wrote last year right here) They’ve been working hard on the game’s audio since we brought them onto the project in September. There’s just one hangup, though – Obe’s voice, as well as the voices for the game’s other characters, are not in the game yet.

Voices are tough to fake using synthesized instruments. You need to capture the performance of an actor who understands the emotions of the scene before them, especially when you’re scoring animated cutscenes. Fortunately, since I’m the one who made the game’s cutscenes, I know exactly what weird noises Obe is supposed to be making! I also love acting and have been involved in theatre since grammar school. I can’t say I’ve done a lot of voice work though, so this was a new experience.

 

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The Setup

How do you record voices, anyway? Well, I made the trek out to Queens to visit Alba and Noah at their apartment to see their setup. They set me up with a microphone stand and a pop filter, with a few sound shields to block out unnecessary noise from the refrigerator. From where I was standing, I could see the cutscene video as we recorded. My goal was to match the visuals on the screen with the noises from my mouth.

On the software side of things, we recorded in ProTools for a bit until it kept crashing during sessions. Noah and Alba eventually decided to just record everything in Logic since they were going to edit the final sound in Logic anyway. It worked out great!

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Here’s a better shot of the microphone stand, pop filter, and sound dampener:

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The microphone used is a Miktek CV4.

I recorded voices for Obe, the forest guardians, and a few bit characters that are only in one cutscene. Noah showed us a crazy sound synthesizer that takes your voice in and spits out animal sounds, like a growling dog or a roaring lion. That was good, because my impression of a lion sounds nothing like a lion!

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Alba and Noah helped to coach me as we repeated sections of the audio.

We even received aid from the innocent creatures of the forest, as we danced in harmony together:

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Their adorable bunny McFlurry mostly hid under the couch. This was a rare sighting.

The funniest part of the day was when Noah and I teamed up to record chatter sounds for the prison guards, who are chasing Obe from a distance. The game has no recognizable English words – or words in any language, for that matter – to make sure it’s easy to localize in China. (Their government is very strict about the influence of “outside” languages.) So we invented our own nonsense language and shouted like idiots for a few seconds before cracking up!

I’m sure that will sound better in post. LOL!

Here’s a transcript, for those interested in the deep lore of Where Shadows Slumber:

GUARD 1: era adbabalao at babt!!!

GUARD 2: ebbebe ebebebe ebe ebe beyhehehe!!!

GUARD 1: arbababaldlalao ehehr ehe!!!

GUARD 1 and GUARD 2: aanndna hehee!!!!

GUARD 1: wod! wod! wod! ow dow dowmee ndenebedo!!

Shakespeare must weep from the great beyond, mystified that he could never attain such beautiful prose.

 

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Thoughts About Voice-Over Work

Voice acting took a lot out of me. It’s really hard! We were focusing on the cutscenes during this session, and I was determined to do them all in one take. Essentially, for each character in the scene, I recorded their voices from the beginning of the cutscene to the end. That means doing about 90 seconds of voiceover per person per cutscene, and we did multiple takes. Additionally, we would skip around and redo certain segments (a gasp, a scream, a laugh) to make sure they came out right. Between trying to keep up with the video and trying to change my voice to match the character, I don’t know what the most difficult part of this was. All I know is that I have a newfound respect for voice actors!

Now that I think about it, screaming was probably the most challenging thing to get right, because it’s so easy for screams to sound campy. For that reason, it’s a little embarrassing to shout at the top of your lungs in front of other people. It also just really hurts your vocal cords! We should have saved that for the end, so I’ll remember that next time.

Actually wait – the hardest thing was when we recorded breathing because I almost passed out! We wanted to get some audio of Obe breathing as he’s running quickly. This would go in the game’s Levels, not in a cutscene. For some reason when you record yourself breathing it becomes really difficult to actually breathe… I got a little lightheaded as we recorded his idle breathing, running breathing, and struggling breathing. Something about keeping a steady rhythm messed up my actual breathing and I had to take a few breaks. Maybe I’m just terribly out of shape?

As you might have guessed, it’s all very challenging! I encourage you to find your favorite voice actor on Twitter or something and send them an encouraging message for all their hard work.

 

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Support PHÖZ Online!

I really appreciated the opportunity to go out to Queens and hang out with these guys for a day. It was a much-needed distraction from my usual routine (wake up, stare at a computer for 12 hours, sleep). Voice acting is an exhausting endeavor, but it was exhausting in a different way than what I am used to, so I had fun!

You should support their work online by going to www.phozland.com and signing up for all of their various social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter). Also, please listen to the selected songs on their website that come straight from the game! They sound so beautiful in isolation, and you’ll gain a new appreciation for all of the hard work they’ve done so far.

 

 

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We hope you enjoyed this update about the game’s audio. Have a question about sound that wasn’t mentioned here? We’ll forward it along to Alba and Noah! 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 – June 2018

Welcome to State Of The Art, June 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.

I’m going to try something new this month. Before we hit the spoiler part of the article, I’ll give you a brief update about the state of the art, and how much work is remaining on the aesthetic side of things. There will be no pictures, GIFs, videos, or bulleted lists, so don’t worry about seeing spoilers! (Just don’t scroll down too fast. You’ve been warned!)

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

 


Spoiler-Free Progress Report

When May began, I had just polished Worlds 5 and 6. However, all of the Levels in the game were in a “toss-up” state. There was no indication as to whether Jack could begin optimizing them. That’s a slow process that he doesn’t want to do twice, so we needed some way of determining which ones I was finished working on. (Optimized Levels are difficult to edit, sacrificing changeability for faster runtimes) As I turned my attention to animation, I realized only 2 of the game’s 10 cutscenes were animated, and none of them had any audio. I tried a weird system of putting audio cues in manually through Unity Events, but that failed miserably. World 7, the game’s final set of Levels, still looked like it did during the prototype phase. My initial artwork on those Levels came across as dated and I really disliked the look. Even worse, the toolkit I established for that World last year didn’t seem like it was going to provide a good foundation. It used way too many polys and didn’t account for the specific nature of many of this World’s puzzles. The outlook was bleak.

As of June 5th, 5 out of the game’s 10 cutscenes have been fully animated. That includes body animations, facial animations, effects, cues, intros, and outros. The SFX for those cutscenes was created independently by our audio dream team (Alba S. Torremocha and Noah Kellman), which means I was able to focus my attention elsewhere during the past four weeks. I greatly improved the World 7 toolkit and reduced the poly count while increasing the quality. That World has a really distinct look to it, one that I think is appropriate for the end of our journey together. I polished 2 of the 5 Levels in World 7, meaning I won’t return to them and I believe they are final game quality. (It also means they are ready for the last coat of audio paint before Jack’s final stamp-of-approval.) Speaking of which, we solved our “toss-up” problem by creating an online doc where I can label a Level “Gold” or “Needs Polish.” If a Level is Gold, it has my stamp of approval. Obviously, I want to get through as many of those as possible because I’ve already done a ton of work on those Levels and I don’t want to neglect the work that remains undone. This month, I “gold-stamped” Worlds 0, 1, and 2.

What’s next: To finish this game, I’ll need to animate five more cutscenes, polish three more Levels, create footprint effects for four more Worlds, and test every Level in the game on multiple iOS devices. That’s a lot of work! I’m going chonologically, so the cutscenes, footprints, and Levels remaining are all in the later half of the game. That will be my goal this month.

You’re all caught up. Now, if you want a sneak peek at some of the artwork I did this month, read on… but beware of game spoilers!

 

 

 


SPOILER WARNING: The rest of this article 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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Obe Leaves Tiny Footprints Behind Him!

Let’s start with something fun that isn’t even much of a spoiler – Obe leaves tiny footprints behind him when he walks! On certain Worlds, when the terrain calls for it, we generate a tiny mesh and a particle burst where Obe’s foot lands. This mesh disappears over time, giving the illusion that Obe is squashing through mud or snow. If there are other characters in the scene, they leave footprints too. We don’t do it all the time though, because any effect can be taken too far. Footprints appear for the first time chronologically in Level 2-1, “Docks”, which you can see in the GIF above.

I know what you’re probably thinking: “you guys have an entire game to finish and you’re focusing on this insignificant detail!?” However, that is entirely the point of the polish phase! Now is the time to work on tiny details that will charm players and get them Tweeting & Instagramming about our game.

You see, humans are funny creatures. We tend to take a lot for granted, and make a big deal out of the smallest things. There’s so much we expect from games as a baseline that I think our enjoyment purely comes from moments where game developers go “above and beyond.” This is anecdotal, but my Twitter feed is always filled with game developers and fans who find tiny insignificant things in video games and then breathlessly announce “THIS IS WHY <game> IS THE BEST GAME EVER CREATED IN <current year>!!” My personal belief is that players gain a sense of pride and attachment when they find something in a game that they believe no one else has noticed yet. Hence, if you add in a lot of small details, you’ll create a lot of little moments in your game that create a bond between the player and your product.

 

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Five Cutscenes Are Now Complete!

I cannot share all of the full video files of the game’s cutscenes with you yet, since five of them have been animated but none of them have sound. Even if they were done, I don’t think I’d want the solo cutscene videos out on the Internet like that. However, there are some things I can show you just to prove that I haven’t been goofing off all month long.

Let’s begin with a treat! Here is the game’s second cutscene, which happens just three Levels into Where Shadows Slumber. If you played a beta build at an event recently, you probably remember it as the annoying cutscene you couldn’t skip. (I’m working on that!) Obe has been thrown into a jail cell and his lantern has been taken from him. Alba and Noah sent it back to us with a first-draft of the audio dub, and it’s great:

I’m so excited to see what the other cutscenes are like with audio! Tomorrow I’ll be doing a recording session with them to get some voices into the audio mix as well. We’ll never record a word of English dialogue, but our characters can still make funny faux-speech noises and grunts. Since the rest of the cutscenes have no audio, here’s some short GIFs of the animations in action to tide you over:

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Obe “meets” the Wardens in a bad neighborhood of the Forest…

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He’s trapped! It was a door the whole time!

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Obe is waylaid as Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” plays in the background…

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Waking up on a random beach? We’ve all been there.

That’s enough sneak peeks for you! I can’t show you the full cutscenes just yet, can I? There has to be something left for you once you buy the game…

Next, let’s discuss the World polish I did this month!

 

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Welcome To Paradise

Long-time readers of this blog will recall that over a year ago I expressed an interest in modeling an entire game World after the architecture of Bermuda. I won’t go into the details, since I wrote a whole blog post about it, but you should read that and come back here!

As I mentioned above in the progress report, I wasn’t crazy about how this toolkit looked when I first created it. But now I think it looks fantastic! Check out the before-and-after comparison of Level 7-1, “Ladder”, below. The first image (with the pink background) is how the Level looked up until last week. The sky was loud yet flat, the buttons looked repetitive, the house had no style, and the grass was way too dark. I didn’t even complete the ridges on the ends of this floating island! Speaking of which, why are these islands even floating?!

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The picture below is a polished version created using modular pieces, hyper-specific artwork, and some new cool effects specific to this Level. The gradient background and fun pastel colors pay a nice homage to our muse, Monument Valley, while the window lights seem to pop off the screen. We get a real sense that Obe has come to this place in the dead of night, as he ascends ever higher.

7-1-Ladder

I’m not as sold on the next image, which is from Level 7-2, “Pond.” It’s always tough to tell when I’m being properly restrained, and when I’m just being lazy. Does this Level have enough going on? It seems like there is a lot of dead space. And yet, due to the constraints of the puzzle, this is not a Level I can go totally crazy with. I actually tried that once and I completely broke the Level and Jack had to put it back together. Whoops!

 

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I hope this looks like a peaceful pond, and not a run-down YMCA swimming pool. This is a really cool Level, so I want to do it justice. Please leave a comment below if you want to help me improve the artwork for this Level! I really do check your feedback and I find it helpful to have outside input. After looking at these Levels for so long, I begin to lose perspective. Help me out!

 

Conclusion

This month, I want to put World 7 to bed. I also want to clear the way for Jack to be able to put his golden stamp of approval on every Level. (As an added bonus, I usually find bugs whenever I’m gold-stamping Levels. The more I find now, the less stressful our final testing period will be!) If I can manage that, I’ll officially be done working on the game’s puzzles.

As for the game’s story, I won’t be able to finish every cutscene in just four weeks. I need some time for World 7 polish, and cutscenes tend to take one week each. Progress on those will be slow, because animation is tedious. The good news is, it’s very easy to put in fake cutscenes when we need to do builds. (It’s just a Unity file that says “go to the next Level in 5 seconds, this cutscene isn’t done yet!) That means we can do a lot of testing even as I work on the remaining animations.

But silver linings aside, there is still a mountain of work left to do on this game. The game is nearly complete, but my trek through animation hell is just beginning…

 

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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.