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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Keeping it All in Your Head

When you study computer science, or first get into toying around with it in your spare time, you find yourself working on a lot of small projects, just to get your feet wet. ‘Hello World’, a program which simply prints the text ‘Hello World!’ is perhaps the most-written program of all time. As your projects get bigger, the code behind them gets more complex, and you, as the software architect, have to keep track of everything that’s going on. This seems like a pretty easy task when working on a guess-the-secret-number game. But what happens when your codebase becomes BIGGER THAN YOUR ENTIRE BRAIN?!

 

Untangling The Web

In case you couldn’t tell from all the words about code, computer science, and programming, this post is gonna be one for the more technical folks out there. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t lessons to be learned by anyone else – keeping track of complex systems is a skill that applies to any project management task!

Real-world systems are incredibly complex – even more so than they appear, even after working with them for a while. As you add features, fix bugs, and increase the overall complexity of your code, you suddenly find yourself stuck in a tangled web of your own design. Now, the best way to combat this is simply to write good, clean code and follow good design patterns. However, if you want some advice other than “just do everything exactly right”, then read on!

Where Shadows Slumber isn’t the most complex game, but the implementation behind it is very intricate, and I definitely didn’t do everything exactly right. As the only developer on the project, I have to keep track of everything, which is a lot of stuff. Here are some tips I’ve developed for not going crazy trying to understand a system that you yourself created!

 

Tip 1: Divide and Conquer

The first application of divide and conquer is exactly what it sounds like – take the whole system, divide it up, and give a different part of it to each team member. While this doesn’t really apply to the development of Where Shadows Slumber, it’s still worth mentioning. If you’re in charge of one part of your project, and someone else is in charge of another part, there’s less minutiae for you each to keep track of. You only have to know how the pathfinding (for example) works on a higher level – the intricate details of the exact implementation are left for the ‘pathfinding team’. And if you do need to understand how pathfinding works, there’s someone who knows all about it – and that’s what teammates are for!

The other application of dividing and conquering is what I’ve heard referred to as ‘the Google Maps approach’. When you’re looking at a map of the world, you don’t need to be able to see every single city. But if you’re looking at a map of a state, you probably do want to see them all. So, the amount of detail you get depends on the context in which you’re examining it.

How can we apply this to project management? It’s really just a state of mind. When you’re thinking about your whole project, try to think of it from a more abstract point of view, rather than considering all of the details of the implementation. This kind of thinking happens naturally, but we want to actively embrace it. You want to think of the smaller parts of your project as a ‘black boxes’ – you give them some input, and they give you some output. You don’t know (or care) how it gets figured out, until you need to look at that code – at which point, you shouldn’t be thinking about the rest of the project. By only caring about the part of the project you’re currently working on, you free up a lot of space in your head.

 

Tip 2: Keep It Simple

The best way to prevent your project from becoming too complex is, obviously, to keep it simple!

Honor Societies

This comic is a comic [Image credit: xkcd.com]

“But how do you keep your project simple?” I can hear you asking. The key is in how you think about your code. For the most part – and there are notable exceptions – you should be able to think about or describe the function of different parts of your code with ease. Doing so might require the context within which that piece is working, but given that, it should be relatively simple.

Now, don’t get me wrong – your code itself will probably be very complex. However, it’s important that any code has a specific purpose. If some piece of code doesn’t have an easy-to-determine purpose, consider why it’s there and what it’s doing. If possible, see if you can move parts of it into the appropriate parts of your project.

Additionally, when describing the purpose of a section of your code, make sure it’s a relatively simple purpose – the best way to do this is to avoid the word “and”. If the purpose of a file is “to perform pathfinding and determine nearby enemies”, it would probably be best to split that into two different files.

By keeping your code as simple as possible, at least from an organizational perspective, you won’t have to strain yourself every time you try to remember what your code is trying to do.

 

Tip 3: Organization

Speaking of organization, keeping your project organized is one of the best ways to keep it under control. This can be tricky and surprisingly time-consuming, which is why people so often shy away from it, but it can also be crucial to your success. The key here is to create sensible patterns, and then follow them.

ORGANIZED

Everything is right where it should be!

The easiest way to apply this is in directory structure. Make a decision toward the start of your project how you’re going to organize everything, and then stick to it. For Where Shadows Slumber, as you can see, we sort most things by world. All of the levels, materials, and textures for World 1 are in the same folder, since they all apply to the same levels.

However, notice that there are some folders which are not organized by world. Scripts and prefabs are examples of things which span across worlds. While a model or texture might be specific to a certain world, the shadowCharacter.cs script, or the pathfinding node prefab are not, so why should they be sorted by world?

Thinking through your project and deciding on a directory structure that makes sense can make it a lot easier to understand what’s happening in your project. And, every so often, you should re-examine your organization, make sure it still makes sense, and make sure you’re actually following it. In this way, you can be organized, stay organized, and know that your organization is actually effective.

There are also organizational paradigms that you can apply to your code to keep it clean. One of my favorites is the idea of data ownership. The idea is that every piece of data in your project (the location of the character, a bullet’s speed, the number of points a player has, etc.) should have an owner. It’s usually pretty easy to figure out who the owner should be, but sometimes it can be tricky – and it’s in those cases where it’s important to know. If my shadowCharacter.cs script is the owner of the character’s position and velocity, then no other code should be allowed to mess with those values. That way, if there’s a problem with the character’s position, you know exactly where to look.

This is just one example of an organizational coding pattern, but the concept behind them all is pretty similar – at every point, you want to make it easier to understand what your code is doing. It’s a whole lot easier to make changes, fix bugs, and implement new features when the things that your code is doing actually make sense to you.

 

Tip 4: Not Too Complex… Yet

Every project starts out small and simple, and yet we constantly find that our projects have gotten out of hand, growing into sentient monsters, taking over our lives and ruining any chance we had of success – who knew that project management was so much like parenthood?

Incredibly clever comments aside, if our project starts out simple and ends up complex, there has to be some point when it started to go awry, right? And if so, there’s probably a point when we could have noticed it going wrong and steered it back on track. Thus, it’s important, as you’re working, to be constantly considering the state that your codebase is in. Every so often, ask yourself; is this code still clean? The more often you ask yourself this question, the sooner you’ll know when you start heading in the wrong direction – it’s much easier to fix this problem if it’s only just started to go wrong!

This is the concept of technical debt – every so often, you add in some bad code, just so that you can meet a deadline, or get some functionality off the ground. Every time you do that, you’re increasing your technical debt – and if you don’t pay that debt, it adds up until your code is unmanageable. It’s always good to keep your technical debt in the back of your mind, and address it as often as possible.

In my experience, there’s one really good way to determine if your technical debt is getting to the point where it’s impairing your development. If you ever find yourself writing overly complex code, it probably means that you have an overly complex system.

The longer the conditional the better

Genius!

Again, I’m not advocating against complex code in general, as it has its place. But if you find yourself writing complex code to do something simple, or repeatedly thinking “it should be easier to do this”, that’s a big red flag. If you ever fix a bug by ‘trying something’, but you don’t know exactly why it fixed the problem, that’s a sign that you don’t fully understand your code, and code that has exceeded your grasp is exactly what leads to very subtle (read: hard to fix) bugs.

When you get to this point, you should take a step back (and maybe a break), get a fresh look at your code, and spend some time cleaning it up. No one likes spending time on housekeeping tasks, but trust me, it’s a lot more fun spending an hour here and there cleaning up your code than it is mucking through an overgrown garden of technical debt.

 

…And Beyond

This is by no means a definitive list, nor will every part of it apply to you or your project. Rather, these are just some of the philosophies I try to keep in mind as I’m coding and software architect-ing. There are plenty of others, but hopefully adding these to your repertoire will help you reign in your projects and keep them from becoming too complex!

 

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If you have questions about managing complex systems, or want to share your own tips, 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.