What a month! Indie game dev, especially for a project as generally ambitious, done in such conditions (details on that particular aspect someday), is clearly a rollercoaster. Between the highs and the lows, the roadblocks and frustrations, all the demanding work there is to be done, it's quite hard to ever feel bored. But what made September quite especially particular was that the stakes went a fair way up. Amongst some personal circumstances to carefully manage, there's been a few developments on the business side, with a few contacts, inquiries and offers extended towards Winterfall.
Now the funny thing about keeping a low profile for so many years and focusing 100% on the grunt work, is that you may forget (if you ever knew it in the first place) that if things do go well, eventually you will have exposure and with that, access a whole new level of play. As exciting as it's been to finally see Winterfall begin to attract that kind of business attention, I have to admit that it's also been a little disruptive of the quietly focused pace that has kept things going so far. It's taking a bit of time to adjust from the "inward" focus on the product, to expanding more outwardly towards communication and business. But it's also very fun.
Now, back to the game's actual development. And so, as of the last devblog we were dealing with a good bit of exciting features. This time around, a lot of groundwork on additional core mechanics has been done. Namely:
- Combat improved with particle effects and placeholder sounds
- Tracking system
- Vital Needs mechanics and stamina management
- Sprint, jump and slide added to controller
- Progressive construction mechanics
- Further inventory integration
- Additional biome blockouts
- New motion-captured animations
Combat, Particles & Style
Combat in Winterfall is 100% action, based on timing and movement, with many attacks available, with combo chains, blocks and dodges. It was therefore important to give a bit more feedback to the players by integrating sounds and particle effects. While sounds are somewhat crude at the moment, they do the job. Particle effects are more interesting however, and besides providing useful information as to what is happening on-screen, contribute to the "animated film" look Winterfall can have by being flashy, colorful and stylish, without being over the top. The entire idea is for them to inform of whether a hit has connected or not, and make it plain whether a shield, or weapon, or a body has been hit. They seem to deliver well on that front giving a bit more of a kinetic edge to the whole thing.
They also have a colorful and flashy styling that keeps building on Winterfall's signature aesthetics. The idea with Winterfall's looks was always to pursue a kind of "comicbook realism": realistic proportions and shapes, but energy and color for everything else, with an added dose of personality. Winterfall's visuals are often praised (thank you!) it's a very interesting phenomenon because assets-wise, we're on the same level as most other Unity developers making do with limited means. But it also goes to show how far along sheer style will take you. And so here we are with those nice, energetic particles, further building up said styling.
Over the past few years, we have seen an entirely new genre rise up and fill up the charts: survival games. What I personally found interesting with survival games is that, by returning to simplistic game mechanics, they tend to be focused experiences, generally quite immersive, particularly if they sport large open environments. However, in a way they can be a step back design-wise since they are generally so simplistic with their mechanics, although it happened to be a much needed step back after a decade and a half dominated by mmorpgs with streamlined, bloated, impersonal that drove every aspect of the player's experience.
A good part of the inspiration for Winterfall came from the desire to make large, open worlds ready for adventure and exploration, in an immersive way, both in terms of environments and mechanics. But being raised by the Ultima school, I hold fondly in my heart the notion of a large world in which there are many game systems operating and interacting together to form a greater whole.
That is the direction to be followed by our overall Wilderness systems, which are a set of smaller systems that not only shape up aspects of gameplay in a slightly more structured way than the "run around until stuff happens" aspects of survival games, but also ultimately branch out into other components to create both life and play.
Tracking is quite simple. The landscape is full of resources, some in plain sight, some more elusive. Some you will know where to look for by scanning your surroundings, such as certain herbs, plants, forage and so on that will be indicated by regular environment features. Some will be static, you will find them once and will simply need to visit them to harvest resources from them, such as river or spring to get drinking water from, a quarry site or a cave in which to mine ore, or a ruin from which to extract stone. Some finally, will need to be tracked down and found, and this is where the tracking system comes in.
Tracking has its own segment of gameplay. Upon using the ability (if it is part of your character's assets), you will be pointed into the direction of your mark. It is then up to you to find your way to it, periodically making sure to refresh the trail to avoid getting off-mark. At the core, it is a very simple system. However, its design enables us to plug all kinds of "sensors" and checks within the whole process, from looking up a trail to making it to the destination, which themselves may feed data to other game systems.
As ever, the idea is that of modularity and communication between systems, so that gameplay creates gameplay, and engaging in a given interaction may be valued both for the interaction itself, but also for its ability to trigger a chain of events and gameplay goals.
Early in october, Vital Needs have finally made it to the internal test phase. Thirst, Hunger, Injury and Exertion make up the growing Conditions that may befall characters in the world, and therefore will drive their needs and motivations. The nice thing about this is that there can be all kinds of sources for each of those Conditions, even though at the moment they are centered on physical events. Conditions demand that you deal with them lest they build up into Weariness, which will accumulate to further effects on the character, some short term, some long term.
However, in Winterfall, the "survival" component is not about plain Life & Death but instead about character development: how much stress do survival ordeals put on your character and how is the character pressed for change in return, developing positive or adverse personality traits and reactions to interactions? This is what you will be dealing with. It's all about what situations you get to create with the gameplay and what responses you give to the challenges.
While eating, drinking, healing and relaxing are presently the ways to appease character Conditions, various additional interactions within the game world will allow to alleviate some of those Conditions (including Weariness) and of course, interactions that cure a Condition to feed another are also planned, and so on. A good example of that being how a certain type of fine meal could appease Hunger but stimulate Thirst, or how a shining achievement may ultimately charge the character much Exertion but diminish his/her Weariness.
Journeying through the lush wilderness of Winterfall is greatly meant to be an adventure of trials, ordeals and decisions as opposed to merely being about the simple life-or-death loop of "roam, loot, consume, die, restart" with stuff happening in-between those points. The long range, deep immersion aspect of open-world RPGs disqualifies such a simplistic loop: if you're going to spend time creating a character, you want to get to spend time having fun with it and not just watch it die of thirst as you run around cluelessly looking for stuff to loot. And yet, the pressures and imperatives of good survival games can be a powerful shaper of game experiences. Our middle ground here is therefore in the fact that there is not just adventure, but also a life after adventure, and adventure determines in what shape the character returns to that life.
In the longer run, there is also to be the feature that characters react to their own Conditions and form demands to the player based on those, or, in the case of NPCs, seek to appease them of their own. Thus, a character suffering from high Exertion may make it a priority to go get some relaxation, or go seek comfort from another character, such as a good friend or lover, or an entertainer. In the same vein, a hungry character is likely to go rob the pantry, and so on. All of this gives gameplay mini-goals to the player, but also does quite a fair bit to lay the groundwork for the "life sim" component of Winterfall, and stimulate the world to life by providing a stream of mini-events.
As you can see, thanks to this update to the core mechanics, important and meaningful gameplay and development alleys open up. A key point of design in Winterfall is that your character is meant to be more than a mere vehicle to drive around and interact in the world with, while other characters are meant to be more than automata or content-delivery machines. Making character needs (and their satisfaction) a part of the actual gameplay experience, as opposed to making them mere short-term goals dotting the gameplay loop, is a very important step in that direction.
And with that comes the idea of Personality. Personality dictactes how a given character reacts to a given type of event or interaction, by "generating" emotions that will then fuel its behavior and motivations. So if you go back to the Exertion example above, an Exerted character may simply go ask for comfort from another, such as family or a friend... or instead burst out in aggression or have a complete meltdown. In any of those cases it would be their personal way of dealing with the Exertion overload... but in each case, the outcome could be quite different based on who that particular character is and of course, based also on the other character they're dealing with (if any).
That is how and why rest situations, from the campfire to the hearth, end up being much more than a time to cook some food or buy/sell some wares. That kind of downtime is where you get your opportunity to deal with the adventure's pressures and reliefs.
So, to sum it up... in a good deal of RPGs, the entire gameplay is pretty much centered on going around fighting and picking up loot that you then get to manage. Here, it's mostly about going around so that you and your character experience things, from which developments ensue, and you have to manage those developments so that they help you build or influence your character (or other characters, for that matter), in the direction you want to. Makes sense? In RPGs, we all enjoy getting better equipment for our characters, scoring up achievements and improving skills and stats and while there is of course some of that in Winterfall, the real metric of power and development is in how advanced or rounded up a character's traits are, how seasoned he or she is to life's ordeals as experience in adventure and often, how quirky and colorful (or twisted and somber) he or she may become as a result.
As you've no doubt figured by now, the overarching design of Winterfall is quite a rich thing, with many branches and components. Here is a little zoomed-in sample of the design map as it currently stands.
Should everything go well, we will have the absolute core (pale blue cross) done before going into November. While a good game experience amounts to a lot more than having systems up and running, having those systems in in the first place is the solid foundation upon which to expand and improve and, in this case, would mean a better ability to showcase something more akin to what the Winterfall experience is meant to be to be. Some existing mechanics, such as horse-riding and mounted melee, don't appear on that zoomed-in map as they came in quite early as a somewhat unexpected outcome. So with the combat gameplay well encapsulated in its own build at the moment, the next goal is a nice Wilderness build featuring the systems described above (and in the picture), all of this on the way to the "Has Everything" Demo Build we've started preparing for late in October. If the Gods of Indie Game Dev smile down at us, Winterfall should be in a very good place in regards to its goals come the end of November. And if they don't, ah well, we'll adapt accordingly!