65. Taiji Video Logs and Next Gen Thoughts

I’ve started a new video series in addition to the normal written development logs. This will hopefully provide a more exciting and fun avenue to show and talk about what’s involved in working on the game, and perhaps just some of my thoughts on game design in general. These for the most part should get posted here, but you can subscribe to the YouTube channel if you want to know as soon as they go up.

Bonus: Thoughts on Next Gen Consoles

(8 out of 10 gamers couldn’t tell which of the above was a next-gen game)

I was planning to talk about the tonally strange but visually impressive Unreal Engine 5 demo on my development stream yesterday, but since the stream ran into technical difficulties and didn’t happen, I’ll say it here instead.

Maybe I’m only noticing this for the first time now because I’m actively developing this game while new consoles are being announced, but it feels like there is a uniquely large gap between how developers and gamers feel about the new hardware. Gamers seem largely underwhelmed, whereas developers are excited by the prospects.

This can mostly be explained by the differences in what these two customers want out of a new gaming console. Developers want the hardware to make it easier for them to make games. Gamers just want to be sold on graphics or gameplay that pushes past the limits of what they’ve seen before.

On the first point, it’s easy to make a case that both Microsoft and Sony are providing a way forward for developers. Microsoft is selling a beefy PC for your living room, and beefy PCs are easier to get games running well on. Sony is selling a slightly less beefy PC, but with some serious storage tricks up its sleeve that can only really happen with bespoke game-playing hardware.

For gamers, well, it’s harder to make the case.

This is partly developers’ fault. We have gotten so good at working with limited hardware that it’s a challenge to show the difference between real-time global illumination and traditional baked lightmaps or between dynamically decimated hero assets and manually authored LODs. There isn’t much difference as far as the result is concerned, however one of the primary benefits of working with better hardware and technology is that developers can get to the same results much easier and faster.

Pushing the frontiers of gameplay or photorealism is only partly about the hardware. Hardware matters for sure–you can’t run everything on a potato–but innovation is increasingly the thing that pushes boundaries.
A good example of graphics innovation being more important than hardware is the introduction of Physically-Based Materials over the past decade. This precipitated a giant leap forward in average visual fidelity for games, not so much because the hardware was more powerful, but because the pipeline for authoring the artwork was much improved.

Although an argument could be made that additional processing power allowed for shaders that were complex enough to more accurately simulate physical phenomena, this innovation in material authoring and rendering didn’t occur any earlier in the film industry either. So it seems like more of a process innovation than having access to better hardware.

As another way of saying the same thing: It was possible before PBM to make games and films that had very realistic looks to them, but success required artists with tons of technical experience and skill. By changing the tools, it became much easier for even an inexperienced artist to produce an output that looks very realistic.

I think this is the type of progress on display in the Unreal demo and is also largely lost on the average gamer. For them, it’s simply about the results.

As for gameplay innovation, that is a much more challenging problem, and unless you are going specifically for a game design about verisimilitude (i.e. Grand Theft Auto), it’s a problem that is largely divorced from the visual one. Of the game designs that I feel were most impactful over the past decade, I think rather few of them would be technical powerhouses. Some of them (Dark Souls) are downright technical messes. So it’s hard to say exactly what feels “next generation” in terms of game design until you see it, and it’s hard to draw a direct connection between these design leaps and console generations.

Well, I’m certainly excited about a new hardware generation. There’s still something about it that reminds me of the old days when you’d read in a magazine about something Nintendo was cooking up in Japan. But it remains to be seen whether or not the next console generation will convince as many people to pull out their wallets on launch day as this previous one did. It is challenging to convince gamers that they need new hardware simply because it makes things easier for developers.

64. The Graveyard

I spent the last month doing an art pass on another one of the major areas in the game. This area is called “The Graveyard” and consists of more or less what the name describes. Some of the earliest art tests for the game were done with this area, so I thought it would be fun to compare a very early version of the games aesthetic with its current look. (Some of the details in the old version have been hidden to avoid spoilers.)

I would say that the new version is much improved. The old version often did not read as a graveyard at all, probably because the only headstones featured are the strange puzzle ones.

This area exists in a snowy biome, which is different than anything I’ve currently built for the game, and required doing a lot of custom artwork. It was a bit of a challenge, but things went much smoother than I expected. It’s sometimes hard for me to believe that I’ve gotten competent enough at doing art for that to happen. I don’t really consider myself much of an artist.

One of the more fun technical bits to get right was the snowy grass, which uses a procedural technique to generate the patterns of snow and exposed grass. You can see a demonstration of its flexibility below:

One of the other things I did this month is much more secret, but is something that I’ve been planning for a long while. I finally figured out a way to implement the idea. I can’t tell you much more, but here’s a sneak peek:

I’m quite happy with the way this interior came out visually, but since I chose a different approach to lighting it, it has me thinking I need to rework some of the other interior areas to match this level of fidelity.

For the next month, I still have more areas that need artwork, but I also have some puzzle design stuff that I need to finish up. Mostly mix-in puzzles, but I also need to get started on prototyping some gameplay concepts for the ending of the game. Somehow after all this time, I still don’t have a proper ending on the game.

63. The Gardens

This last week I finished the art pass on the area I mentioned in the last devlog post. I settled on “The Gardens” as the name for the area, as it features flower gardens near the entrance, a vegetable garden to the south, and an abandoned grape trellis to the east.

This marks the end of a month for which the game was unplayable, since I have to break a lot of things when revising areas. Normally these types of revisions don’t take a whole month, but the metapuzzle concept here (mentioned in the last update) was quite technically complex, and I ended up having to pare back some parts of the design due to playability problems.

I still don’t want to spoil how the metapuzzle functions, but essentially, it was possible for the player to get the puzzle into an un-solvable state. I tried to resolve this in a very lightweight way that would (in theory) add some additional depth to the puzzle. However, once I implemented it. I realized that my solution didn’t actually work, and so I had to choose a more aggressive fix that eliminated some of the additional depth I had hoped to have.

I am still hopeful that I will come up with a way to add that depth back in, but I felt I had spent enough time on the problem for now, and the metapuzzle is in “good enough” shape. Certainly an improvement on what was there before.

So I’ve finished up six of the eleven major areas in the game, and the next obvious step would be to begin artwork on one of the others. However, I’m a little reluctant to immediately break the game again, so I plan on switching gears to puzzle design for a bit. I still need to take a look at improving the panel puzzles for the Gardens, so I may do that this week in addition to some of the other puzzle design tasks on the list.

61. Testing my Patience

I’m mostly kidding about the title, but I’ve been putting the game out to some new testers these past few weeks (which is why I missed December’s devlog update).

Whenever I stop working on new things and take some time to reflect, I often get a bit depressed. I’ve mentioned this feeling during the previous round of testing and it’s similar feeling during this round. I feel accomplished in that I’ve made enough progress for the game to be worth evaluating again. But there’s still so much to do that it’s overwhelming to think about.

Looking at things at a high level, I’ve done a “good enough” art pass on five of the eleven areas in the game (although some of them I’d still like to make major tweaks to)

So that means I’m almost halfway done with the art, which is pretty good progress. But it also means that I still have the majority of the game to finish up.

It’s hard to make estimates on how “close to done” the design is because progress there is much less straightforward. With the art, it’s probably good enough to have art that looks decent and isn’t overly confusing. But with the design, there’s no “right” way for anything to be. It’s down to my personal decisions about what types of puzzles to focus on and how much should be required to progress in each area.

I also still haven’t put in anything resembling an ending, and I’m not even sure what that might entail. I think it’s rather hard to make satisfying endings to puzzle games. If the puzzles are too hard, it can wreck the pacing and just make the ending feel like a chore. Alternatively, if the ending is too easy, it can feel anticlimactic. Usually what works best is something that feels like a large change of pace from what came before.

To that end, I have a few ideas, but they are underdeveloped at the moment.

I’ll close out this post with a short clip of one of the areas that I’ve recently re-did the art for. It’s not entirely finished, but I’m happy with how it’s come along.

13. Forgetting Something?

The goal was to keep a weekly development log, but it’s been over two months since my last entry. A lot of things came up, but I haven’t really touched Taiji much. Been working on other projects and personal things, so not completely unproductive, but my whims have not pushed me back into game development yet.

Always a strange thing, I let my mood dictate to a certain extent what I work on, but I also try to push myself to complete longer term projects.

I suppose I’m lucky that I still don’t have any better ideas than Taiji, but this interface rethink problem has really bogged me down. I don’t like the old interface and I have doubts about my current idea for the new one. Still, I have no better plan for replacing the interface than what I was already proceeding with.

12. Slacker

I believe I even skipped a week or two of updates on the blog here. Still not worked on the game. Kind of amazing how I let procrastination snowball. I try not to beat myself up too much when I don’t feel like working on it and don’t get anything done, as the negative energy really is not very constructive. But I’m starting to feel pretty useless.

On the plus side, things in my personal life have been improving dramatically, and I have been having a good time lately. I suppose it lends itself to asking a question of what is really most important in life to me. I feel like my primary motivator is love, and all other motivations are secondary to that. If I don’t get the love then it’s more important for me to be creatively productive, for example.

I’m not sure, though. It’s just a theory. Either way, things are good for me but not so good for the game, until I sit my butt down in that chair and finish this interface overhaul and get on to designing some more puzzles and such.

11. Crossing the Line into Lazy-town

Still haven’t touched the game. Keep procrastinating. To be honest I have a hard time not calling it laziness at this point, but I am trying to not be so hard on myself. There are two parts of me, the part that wants to get shit done, and the part that wants to procrastinate. Generally, the “get shit done” part making the “lets watch stargate” part feel guilty only makes him want to work less.

On the positive side. I am no longer sick, and I have been having some good and exciting (although a bit stressful) things happening in my life lately.

10. Still Sicking After All These Years

Nothing really much to report other than it turned out my hopes of getting better were a bit premature. I never did go to a doctor, as I am poor, but I believe it was strep and as of writing this I am maybe 90% better. So hopefully this upcoming week will have more productivity and less laying around letting my body drain out fluids and trying not to die.

9. Sick Days

Unfortunately this week I have been down with a terrible flu that left me mostly delirious and unable to work. I’m starting to recover a bit now though so that’s good.

Also somewhat irritated by the lack of version parity between the Windows and Linux version of Unity, as well as Unity’s seeming indifference to this. Right now, you can get the latest beta version of Unity on both Linux and Windows, but not the latest stable? What? This leaves me unable to work on the game on my laptop because the project will not load.

Sometimes streaming the game does actually help with my productivity because it’s a scheduled thing that I have to show up for. I’m trying to work on feeling accountable to my own self for showing up to work on the game on time, but it’s not always easy to do that.