Game Development

Blog 828: Welcome To (Re)Conditioning

Yep, version 0.03 of Exon: Fragment cleaned up all the bugs I care to tackle right now, so it’s back to working on content.

First up: reconditioning the previous demo level, that will come after you leave the Exon Academy. Which I haven’t touched for… three years?

Welcome To (Re)Conditioning

I hadn’t touched the “Targe Mine (Above Ground)” level since I decided to focus on making the Arena into the centrepiece for the demo instead. Then the Arena grew to include the Gauntlet and some wilderness and… well, a lot changed. I’m happy with the result, though; the Arena alone could have given people the wrong impression about Exon, while the inclusion of surroundings make its status as a side quest in an open RPG clear.

The Targe Mine, then, is the first map of the first real job you’ll take on in the game (the so-called “fateful mission” that sets the plot in motion). Rather than the relaxed wandering of the open world, once you start down this path you won’t be able to duck out until you’ve seen it all the way through — this is the linear goal-driven balance to the flexible exploration phase. This is where equipment condition, weight and ammunition constraints will really kick in, as you have no idea when you might find another shop.

The joke is that none of these dialogue options will get the gate to open — you need to hop up and over via those cliffs.

When I opened up the scene to resume where I left off, I realised that I didn’t actually have much to go on: I was greeted by hundreds and hundreds of errors, the ashes of systems long refactored.

While the landscape was built using Terragne (and so only broke because I rebuilt the ramp and paint systems just the other week), the conversation and trigger systems back then were… nascent to say the least. In the intervening years, for example, I reconstructed the entire trigger system to use polymorphic serialisation, so I had empty Trigger components attached to game objects throughout the level, accompanied by loads of dead script references from the old component-based system.

Then there were the decorative issues. The level used to be at a 45-degree angle to give it a faux-isometric cant and I realised that my World Editor systems can’t actually handle that anymore. A load of lights weren’t applying to several important decoration layers (that one was a real puzzler, I thought I’d broken some actual models). And then I noticed that because I changed my tree models again… yep, all of the foliage was floating in mid air.

Rugged cliffs and beautiful sandy beaches line the estuary, but it’s not set in Cornwall.

After a couple of gruesome weekends, I’ve got it back on track. Installed the standard Earth day/night cycle and temperate forest ambient sound generator. Rebuilt Trego’s side quest and copied the remnants of his dialogue into a properly-configured conversation. Reworked entering the beach cave and fixed a load of bugs with the map/black mask system along the way. Restructured all the interactive gubbins to conform to the same heirarchy as the other levels.

The level wasn’t done when I left it, though; I was only about half-way through. I had the perimeter, the beach and the barge; the main mine entrance guarded by an Alpha mech (18 guns, yep); the mine office with a way up to a back door; a conveyor belt leading to a rock-crusher… and a whole load of empty space in between. Huzzah!

Trego is very trusting.

But that’s where we get to the fun stuff.

You see, this level has only one primary objective: get into the mines. How you do so is entirely up to you, so now I get to slather those empty spaces in options to explore.

Will you clamber up the overhead pipes and sneak in the back door? Smash your way into the office and steal the code to the main entrance? Wade up the river and break through the fence at the dam? Weaken that Alpha by setting off some explosive barrels with a well-placed laser shot? So many choices!

I’m quite certain that players will quickly extract an optimal solution from the morass, but I’m not all that bothered by that prospect. I have made no attempt to balance any particular approach and I feel like this unevenness will give it a degree of character that might otherwise get sanded off. (I’m thinking particulary of Human Revolution, which felt very “would you like to take the air vent or go in shooting?”) Besides, the most thorough players will find all the best loot and narrative clues, so there will be reason to drift onto the less direct routes.

So many routes, so little time! … actually there’s no time limit on this mission, you could just wander about forever.

All of which led to my first major milestone in a long while: I spent a whole afternoon at Levels working on content and didn’t open Visual Studio even once. The long-held dream that I could build an engine and tools and then stop programming at all suddenly seems within reach. (But after eight years of hard graft, “Hell, it’s about time.”)

There are still 3 levels to go after this one, though. I have the briefest outline of the Friendly Arm waystation still to finish, then I need to do the underground half of the mine and the crux of this mission… but no spoilers for that just yet. No rest for the wicked!

And you tell me...

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