Fake It Til You Make It

Alright people. There’s something that’s been bothering me for a while, and I think it’s time we come clean. For the last two years, ever since the first prototype of Where Shadows Slumber, Frank and I have been lying to you.

“What?!” you ask incredulously, affronted dignity ablaze. “How can this be? What have you lied to us about? I must know!”

Well, never fear – we’ve never lied about the game. All of our screenshots are from the actual game, we’ve represented our progress pretty accurately, and we love you as much as we always have. Rather, inside the game, within Obe’s world, basically everything is a lie.

 

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The video game Hydrophobia was criticized for focusing too much on its water physics and not enough on other forms of gameplay.

Faker!

This phenomenon is not unique to Where Shadows Slumber – in fact, it’s one of the defining features of video games. If you have experience with video game development, you know exactly what I mean. Think about the real world and the way things actually work. Molecules, fluid dynamics, physics – it’s just way too much stuff to simulate. Even if we get rid of all the stupid sciencey stuff and just consider things like gravity, friction, momentum, and basically anything else from classical physics, the real world is far too complicated to quickly and reliably reproduce on a phone (or a supercomputer, for that matter).

And the best part about this is that it’s not a problem. In fact, even if phones could handle all of physics, we would probably continue faking it. After all, if we do a good enough job of faking it, why would we bother actually implementing it?

This brings me to the actual point – when developing a game, we’re not trying to create a world for you to look at and interact with. Instead, we’re trying to create something that looks enough like a world that you can interact with that you think we actually did create a whole world. This is a very fine line to ride – too far toward realism, and your game will lag, but too far toward fake-ism, and people will be able to tell and won’t like it.

lava

How did you even get there? …How are you not dying?!

Think about a character walking on relatively flat ground. You could spend all of your time designing a system which allows you to near-perfectly imitate physics. Every time the character takes a step, you calculate exactly how their foot hits the ground, and how it changes their path. This process has eaten up most of your development time, and is so intensive that your game can’t run at more than 15 frames per second. But hey, those perfect physics are worth it, right?

Well, no. I mean, in this case, the ground is relatively flat, so you could have the character just walk along a straight line. Sure, his feet might hover above the ground or clip through it at times, but it’s close enough. Even if the ground isn’t flat, the point is that a simplification of what actually happens is always ‘good enough’ for your game, and it helps you save where you really need to – both development time and processor time.

 

 

NoShadow

Wait, what’s making that shadow?

Where FAKE Shadows Slumber

Now, when it comes to Where Shadows Slumber, there are two big areas in which we consistently lie.

Physics. This is the case that applies to most, if not all, games, and Where Shadows Slumber is no exception. Everything you see when you’re playing is a carefully constructed illusion. Obe is never standing on the ground – the ground is conveniently and strategically placed so that it looks like he’s standing on the ground. “Physics” covers any physical interactions or representations of objects. This leads to a huge disconnect between what things look like, and how they work. In fact, nothing in the game serves the dual purpose of actually doing something and actually looking like something. In every case, we simply have two game objects – one which interacts with other objects according to the rules of our game (our simplified “physics”, if you will), and the other which is just there to look pretty.

Shadows. Where Shadows Slumber is, obviously, based on shadows. Someone who has played the game would tell you that “shadows change things”. However, this isn’t exactly true – in fact, the shadows in Where Shadows Slumber have literally no effect on the gameplay whatsoever! This is another instance of the decoupling of an object and its visual representation. We show the dark black shadow as it moves across the world, but using that shadow’s location is far too computationally intense to be doing every frame. We could do it, but this is another case where we don’t need to be 100% realistic, as discussed in my blog posts on how our shadows work (part 1 and part 2), we use a much simpler algorithm to determine if something is in shadow. This saves computation time while not sacrificing quality. It’s all about that trade-off!

 

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Otherwise known as “what happens when two hacks collide.”

Potential Pitfalls of Constantly Lying

While I strongly advocate for this type of simplification, there are cases where it can cause some trouble. A great example of this came up when we were doing the finishing touches on the original demo for the game.

We had added ramps that Obe could walk on to some levels, to give them a little more depth. It  was working very smoothly, and made the world feel less game-y. Separately, we also came to a decision to have a drop shadow for Obe. It felt weird that Obe himself didn’t cast any shadows, but it didn’t make sense for him to, or everything behind him would be in shadow. We ended up with a circular shadow underneath him. Even though it didn’t make sense from a literal standpoint (since the light wasn’t directly above him), we found that players simply knew what it was, and it added realism, since they were so familiar with the concept of shadows being ‘underneath’ something.

StairShadow

Something looks just a little off…

This was all fine and good – both of these ideas were strong ideas (in fact, the latter is a great example of a place where simulating a very fake shadow was much better than attempting to use a realistic one). However, it was when we combined these ideas that we ran into trouble. You see, the drop shadow we made assumed a flat floor – we just plopped it down with a little transparency, and it looked great! Until Obe got to the stairs, that is. Once he started up a ramp, half of the drop shadow ended up being invisible (because it was underneath the ramp), and the other half was at the wrong angle. We had come up with a great simplification, but it ended up totally ruining the illusion!

These situations do come up, and pretty often – two great ideas can combine to form one horrible edge case. However, this situation in particular came about due to a bad design process. At some point near the end of the demo’s development period, we realized “Oh shoot, Obe needs a shadow!” We hacked together the drop shadow solution without considering the long-term design implications. The important thing about making this type of simplification is to understand that it is inherently “wrong” on some level, since it doesn’t perfectly respect the way the world works. This is fine, until it comes up against other things, which are themselves “wrong”. In these cases, you must be extra careful to think through your design decisions with respect to everything they’re going to interact with. This is yet another reason why it’s important not to make design decisions or changes toward the end of your project.

 

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I hope this gave you a bit of an insight into what’s actually happening in Where Shadows Slumber! If your confidence in us is shaken and you have any questions about what else we’re lying about, feel free to contact us! You can always find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.

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

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Monument Valley 2 and Its Implications

On Monday, Apple and ustwo games nonchalantly made an announcement that could forever change the development of Where Shadows Slumber. If you haven’t heard (or figured it out from the title), then I’m glad I get to be the one to tell you – Monument Valley 2 has just been released for iOS devices, with Android coming “soon”!

If you’ve ever played the original Monument Valley, then you’ve probably noticed that it was a big inspiration for Where Shadows Slumber (in fact, you might remember that I mentioned something to that effect in my first blog post). Monument Valley is one of my favorite games of all time, and I’m super excited to be able to return to that world for another round!

As awesome as this announcement is, it’s also a little bit scary. Monument Valley 2 is gonna make a big splash, and people are going to be paying attention to it. The development, production, and eventual release of Where Shadows Slumber will all be happening in its wake, and so this announcement is very important to the future of Where Shadows Slumber.

How does this announcement affect our development, you ask? Well, let’s take a look!

 

There Can Only Be One

Monument Valley was awesome. I mean, it changed the face of mobile gaming as we know it. It was genre-defining and laid a lot of ground for future games like Where Shadows Slumber.

The problem with using a game as inspiration is that your game becomes pretty similar to that game. Since Monument Valley was such a hit, that’s not really a bad thing. Until you consider the fact that two very similar games are inherently competitors. We feel pretty confident in Where Shadows Slumber, and we felt that four years would definitely be enough to set us apart. A new Monument Valley game really changes the equation, for a number of reasons.

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Ro vs. Grongus: Deathmatch

The first reason is pretty obvious – there are only so many people buying puzzle games. A giant like Monument Valley 2 takes up a lot of that demand. If Joe Puzzlegamer pulls up to the App Store and wants to get an artsy puzzle game, he’ll have a lot of choices. Even if he only had two choices, which would he choose – Where Shadows Slumber or Monument Valley 2?

Monument Valley 2 has a pedigree. It has a wildly successful predecessor. It was made by a studio with a real budget, decently-sized teams, and the know-how to bring a successful game to market. Where Shadows Slumber is awesome, but we’re just two random guys with little money and even less experience. Even if that’s not how we see it, that’s how everyone else will. Monument Valley 2 is the clear choice for the random outside observer.

In addition to losing out on potential sales, there are other things we could lose to Monument Valley 2. For a team without a large advertising budget, one of the best ways for us to get publicity is through conventions and awards. With Monument Valley 2 crowding the beautiful Unity-based puzzle genre, we could also lose chances to attend conventions and win awards. Again, people will have to choose between us and them. Will Unity invite us to represent them at an event? Will Apple shower us with promotions? Will we be anyone’s pick for best puzzle game? Probably not, if they can get Monument Valley 2.

 

Puzzle Mania

While there are some negative takeaways to Monument Valley 2, there are definitely quite a few positives (in addition to the fact that we have another awesome game to play). As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats.

When Monument Valley first hit the mobile gaming scene three years ago, it made quite a big splash. People absolutely loved it, and they clamored for more – I know when I finished Monument Valley, I wished for nothing but more levels. Imagine if we had been able to release Where Shadows Slumber 8 months or so after that – just when people are done with Monument Valley, but still want a similar experience, we provide them with exactly that!

Monument-Valley-2-Main-by-Ustwo-games

Bringing people back to puzzle games

We’re hoping for a similar situation to unfurl here. People will play Monument Valley 2, and it’ll get their brains working. They’ll (presumably) love the puzzles, the art, the brooding atmosphere. They’ll be all warmed up to the genre, and they’ll be on the lookout for anything similar. We’ll be ready to pounce on that crowd, and hopefully it’ll help us release into a bit more hype than we might otherwise.

Basically, we’re hoping that Monument Valley 2 will revitalize the moody puzzle game market. Not to sound too utilitarian, but we plan to use Monument Valley 2 as a sort of springboard to success!

 

Timing

There are a few things about this announcement that could be bad for Where Shadows Slumber, as I mentioned, but I think that there is an important factor worth mentioning, and that is the timing. We’re planning on releasing Where Shadows Slumber in early 2018. So, all things considered, I think this timing is just about perfect for us. If Monument Valley 2 had to be released sometime soon, now is probably the best time.

timing

Perfect timing.

If Monument Valley 2 were to be released a month or so after Where Shadows Slumber, we wouldn’t even stand a chance. As soon as people were starting to get excited about our game, a much more acclaimed game would come along and steal all our thunder! A similar story plays out if we release shortly after them – our release simply goes unnoticed.

So why is this the best time? Wouldn’t it be better if they had released a long time ago, to keep our release as far away from theirs as possible? While that makes a lot of sense, I think that Monument Valley 2 will inspire more interest in puzzle games overall, and eight months seems like a pretty good timeframe for the MV2 hype to die down, but for the puzzle fever to still be strong.

Additionally, the fact that Monument Valley 2 has been released in a different calendar year from Where Shadows Slumber works in our favor as well. A lot of awards are of the form ‘game of the year‘, and Monument Valley 2 is a shoo-in for many of those awards. With our biggest competitor releasing in a different year, we won’t have to compete directly with them for ‘of the year’ awards. Not that we expect to win these awards, but it’s always nice to feel like you have a chance.

 

Changes To Development

So how does this actually change our development plans for Where Shadows Slumber?

Since the timing of Monument Valley 2 is working in our favor, we’ve decided that we’re going to stay the course. We’re still aiming for an early 2018 release, which we feel puts us far enough away from this release. If Monument Valley 2 announced their release in early 2018, we would have no choice but to push our release back a few months. As of now, we aren’t making any changes to our schedule, but we’re definitely keeping our eyes open – if they release an expansion of some sort in early 2018, we might have to reconsider our own release date.

Since Where Shadows Slumber was so inspired by the original Monument Valley, we’re also looking at this as an opportunity to be inspired again. People have, and will continue to make comparisons between our game and Monument Valley, but now they’ll have a newer, sleeker version to compare us to – we have to try and keep up! We get to see another take on the Monument Valley style of puzzler, and we get to see a bunch of new mind-bending puzzles. Perhaps some of them will strike inspiration in our hearts, and help us make Where Shadows Slumber that much better!

inspiration

Can you feel the inspiration?

On the other side of that coin, we’ll also be playing Monument Valley 2 and looking for anything that’s a little too similar to Where Shadows Slumber. If we find that one of our levels is very similar to one of theirs, we may have to change it – even though we didn’t steal it from them originally, that’s what it will look like to the outside observer. We want to be similar to Monument Valley, but not too similar.

 

Takeaways

Most of the above musings on the implications of Monument Valley 2 are pretty specific, and overall, they’re pretty far beside the point. This is one of the most exciting announcements I’ve heard in a long time, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the new game! That’s the biggest takeaway you should have from this post – no matter what the implications, I’m super excited, and you should be too!

 

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If you finish Monument Valley 2 and are looking for more puzzle-y goodness, you can always find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.

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

Progress Report

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

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

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

 

How Far We’ve Come

evolution

The evolution of Grongus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Where we are now

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

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

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

Checklist

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

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

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

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

 

What’s Next?

planning

This is what planning feels like in indie game development

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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