My favourite joke format at the moment is this: “It’s only X if it comes from the X region of France, otherwise it’s just sparkling Y.” In this case, “it’s only artificial intelligence if it’s from the AI region of France, otherwise it’s just sparkling if statements”. I can dunk on AI hype, you see, because I’m programming AI for my game again.
I’ve done quite a bit of AI programming already. The bots have fairly well-developed situational awareness — if they see an item they want they’ll move to pick it up; if they see an enemy they will attack; and if they are fighting they’ll use their abilities.
What they lack, however, is strategic awareness. Seeing as the Arena will have bonus objectives, and the same logic will power boss fights and full characters in the campaign, bots are going to need to that extra layer of intelligence.
So, a few months ago, I paused work on Exon’s main campaign to focus on building the Arena. This approach came with some risks but I decided to swallow them because this felt like it would be the fastest route to something genuinely playable.
I was right, because that was about three months ago and for the last few weeks I’ve had it out at local game dev events and being played by real human beings. It is by no means a finished game, but it is a fully-functioning, self-contained scenario that stresses the breadth of the game’s core combat mechanics. A vertical slice. Objective complete!
It’s funny because my mechs’ primary attacks are vertical slices.
I was at a game dev meet-up about a month ago now, where my pals sassed me silly for not having shipped a game yet. They’re right to do so — although I vigorously resist accusations of feature creep (it’s not creep if it’s all part of the original plan), it’s true that I’m making something rather large that isn’t going to be releasable until it’s “done” (this is the true curse of building narrative-driven things).
About a year ago, I set down my plan for the first release: a self-contained prologue to a bigger campaign, which would be short enough to manufacture in a sensible time-frame, but broad enough to stress out most of my features. “Sensible time-frame” is, of course, relative and it’s still got a long way to go.
So I asked myself: what’s the minimum viable game? What is the purest, simplest expression of top-down mech action that I can build and put in front of people?
So, I’ve been fairly quiet recently because 1) developing saving and loading systems has been a long invisible slog and 2) I’ve been replaying Morrowind (oops).
But with all the data that comprises a “campaign” in Exon being successfully written to disc, it was finally time to start trying to load it. Since I’ve told you the story of decomposing the world into text files in more than enough detail, it’s time to begin the story of reconstructing it…
Right, so my last dev diary was mostly theoeretical — how can one ensure every prefab and pre-placed object in Unity has a unique identifier that can then be associated with saved data and used to reassemble the game world later.
Having implemented said indexing mechanisms, there are a few gotchas to report, but it is overall working as advertised. Which means I have begun phase two: actually writing the data out.
When I decided that procedural generation was too much bother for not enough gain and switched over to hand-crafting scenarios, I figured that was the worst of my development headaches gone. After all, the more data that is static, the less you have to worry about while the game is actually turned on.
Then I realised that you’re still going to die a reasonable amount of times during the game. Then I realised that although the levels will be individually smallish, they’ll still be quite open.
What does death plus openness equal? Why, my dear, it means I must let you save and load your game, because fuck losing all that progress (to death or dinner).
Movement is very important in Exon. Beyond merely getting around you’ll need to keep moving to avoid attacks and get the drop on your enemies, and you’ll want to explore to find alternative routes and secret bonuses.
Although it is operated top-down, it is a game in full 3D — height is important for exploration and all the mild platforming that will entail. That, however, made the logic that controls movement very very very complicated.
Can you guess what’s coming? I think you can guess what’s coming. I just rewrote my core character movement system!
Being able to build big plaps of landscape is one thing, but earth is nothing without water.
Water is one thing I do not miss from my Warcraft III days. It was at a fixed level (give or take some dodginess), it didn’t flow in any particular direction, and it had very little impact on gameplay. The best rivers were pure decoration constructed from massively skewed waterfall models.
No, it’s time for me to break free and do rivers properly.