Archive for May, 2013

Before I get into the next Development Diary entry for Deathfire, I wanted to point you all to a new interview with me on The Nerd Cave. It is an interesting – I think – look at the different aspects of my career, not only the games most people are familiar with. But now back to our regularly scheduled programming… more Deathfire stuff. 🙂

It is a common occurrence in game development that you have to make design decisions based on incomplete information. Why? Well, because at the time you design many aspects of a game, the game itself does not really exist yet. You are merely projecting what you want it to be. Therefore you have to make a great many decisions based on whatever information you have at the time, and what you expect the gameplay to be like in the final product. It is probably hard to imagine for many people, but game design is a very iterative process. Especially as the complexity of the game and underlying systems grow, the requirements will most likely change as well. Somewhere down the line, play testing may show flaws and weaknesses that will have to be addressed, or entire parts of the system show themselves to be flawed, tedious or outright un-fun. No one has ever designed the perfect role playing game in a single attempt, ever. You make decision, rethink them, revise them, reiterate them, adapt them and then repeat the entire process until one day you ship a product.

While working on Deathfire, the other day we stumbled into such a scenario, which I think illustrates this very nicely in an easy to understand manner. The item in question were the character status boxes.

UI sketch These small user interface elements serve to give the player a quick overview over the characters in his party, their health, their mana, their condition, etc. They also allow the player to access more information and to make various character-specific selections, such as attacks and spells, among other things.

I made a list of components I felt needed to be part of this character box, mocked it up very quickly in Photoshop, and forwarded it to Marian so that he could think of a proper graphical representation for them. Instantly the question for him became, “Should we do it this way, or maybe make tall slim boxes, or rather wider ones?”

He worked out some ideas and showed them to the rest of the team. You can see the initial designs below. As you can see, they follow the same kind of general design pattern, but each version is created with a specific focus in mind. One focuses on the portrait, while another one favors the attack and spell slots, and so forth.

Once we saw these, it became clear that with our original premise, these boxes would use up a significant amount of screen real estate. Deathfire will have a party that consists of four heroes. In addition to that, the player can recruit two additional NPCs at any given time, resulting in six character boxes on the screen. With all the information displayed, this a not insignificant amount of screen real estate to deal with and the last thing you want is for these boxes to cover up vital areas of gameplay.

Different versions of the character status box
First versions of the character status box that we evaluated

While these were great first attempts, they felt a bit too design heavy and not what you would really need in the actual game. In addition, the important elements seemed to be drowned out a bit by the bulky borders and decorative elements. In a word, we felt we weren’t quite there yet. We decided that we needed to optimize this somehow and for that we needed to envision more clearly how the player is going to play the game. While we have the game engine up and running with our 3D environments and some basic core functionality, we have yet to reach the point in our prototype where it is possible to really get a feel for the way the game will play in the end. Therefore, we had to extrapolate and sort of play the game in our minds, and as we did so, a few things became obvious.

Another version of the character status box
An iteration of the character status box, but we felt it ran too wide.
Note, however, the lines are all much slimmer than before.
This is not final art and the portrait is merely a mock-up

There was a lot of stuff in those original character boxes that we didn’t really need. At least not all the time. So we thought that maybe we could create boxes the display the minimum of information and when the player moves the mouse over them, each respective box will expand to its full size, allowing access to the full set of features. The next step was for us to decide what that minimum of information actually is that we need to relay to the player at all times.

Small status boxDo you really need the character’s name, for example, all the time? One could argue that the portrait is enough, particularly if we allow players to customize them the way we have in mind, but since we are creating a game in which interaction with NPCs and among the party members themselves will be very frequent, we felt that it is, in fact, very important that the player always has an indication as to who is who, when they are being referenced by name.

But what about those attack and spell slots? Because we have a turn-based combat system in Deathfire, it is not essential for us to give the player instant access to his weapons and spells. In real time combat, yes, the player needs access to his weapons, which represent the attacks, within a fraction of a second, but in real-time combat, the combatants take turns, which means there is proper time for the player to make his selections without rushing things. If we automatically expand the box for the character whose turn it is, this should turn out to be pretty slick and efficient, actually, also serving as a visual guide as to whose turn it is.

The expanded character status box
The expanded character status box with weapons equipped.
Note: This is not final art and the portrait is merely a mock-up

Usually the on-hand weapon slots also serve the purpose to Use items in role playing games, such as potions or tools. However, we reckoned that while that is true, it is not an all too common occurrence, particularly not one that is typically time critical, so the brief delay that expanding the full box would incur during a mouse-over should be acceptable. There is also still enough meat for the player to grab the box and drag it to a different place so that the order of the party can be easily arranged in the game, while mouse-over texts will relay additional information, such as the actual points of health, etc.

In my original layout specs, we also had a small toggle that allows the player to switch between a panel displaying the equipped weapons and one displaying the hero’s quick-spells. (Quick spells are memorized spells that can be fired at a moment’s notice without further preparation. They are complemented by non-memorized spells that require significantly more time to cast.). Upon playing the game in our minds, we realized that this toggle, too, is really needed very infrequently. For the most part spell casters would want to have their quick spells accessible while melee and ranged fighters would want their weapons accessible. The player would then occasionally switch these panels, but for the most part we expect them to remain fairly static settings.

Therefore we decided the toggle does not need to be available at all times and could be safely removed from the mini box. Incidentally, as Marian was working out his designs, it turned out that we do not need the toggle at all, because we can fit the weapon slots and the quick spell slots all on the enlarged pop-under box.

UI sketchWith all that in mind, we decided that we really just wanted to display the portrait, and the health and mana bars at all times, along with the hero’s name and a small digit that represents the character’s level. Character states, such as poison, paralyzation, etc can be easily color-coded into the portrait, or displayed as mini-icons alongside, and damage markers can be painted right over the portrait. All in all a pretty neat affair, I would say. For now… because who knows? Once will begin actually playing the game in earnest, we may find that our assumptions were wrong and that have to re-design the boxes once more, but such is the life of a game developer. It is the nature of the beast. Game development is an evolution, even after doing it for the umpteenth time.


On my Twitter feed, as well as here on the blog, a few questions have arisen, regarding the “Bind item on equip” option displayed in the Item Editor. It is an option that is highly unusual for a single-player game, and some of you are wondering what’s up with that.

“Bind on Equip” has been brought to the table by massively-multiplayer online games in order to prevent players from using and then selling valuable and unique items to other players. It forces the player to consider‌—‌if only for a moment‌—‌if he’d rather use the item or make money off it.

In retrospect, I find it strange that this feature has never come up in single-player games before, because at its core, the rationale remains the same. Perhaps we have all just been too blindsided to realize its existent potential. After all, they are not uncommon in mythical lore and popular fiction. James Bond has a gun that is attuned to him, and so does Judge Dredd, and even the magic wands in Harry Potter work that way. Excalibur, the mythical sword from the Arthurian saga or Ulysses’ bow are also perfect examples of bound or attuned weapons, so it is only sensible to carry the concept over into games.

When we bind items in Deathfire, it will be mostly for the same purpose. While buying and selling items in the game may not be the driving factor for item binding in our game, other aspects of it are. In Deathfire’s game design I want to use it to force the player to think about certain decisions. In this case, which party member should I give the item to?

If you give it to the wrong character, you’re robbing yourself of another character’s opportunity to make better use of it, perhaps, because the item can no longer be traded among party members. If you give it to an NPC, he or she might run away with it at some point. More importantly, it prevents that you take a truly powerful, unique weapon from an NPC who just joined the party to give it to your favorite character and then boot out the NPC. If you equip it, you’re no longer able to sell it or barter it away. What if the item is unique and part of a quest, and in the end you learn that only a certain character can use it, all the while you already bound it to someone else? On the other hand, the binding weapon you just found might be so powerful that the lure of it is simply so strong that you throw all caution in the wind and equip it anyhow, against your better judgement, because you hope it will help you overcome that mob of Golem Guardians awaiting you.

Decisions, decision, decisions… the lifeblood of a good role-playing game.

These are aspects the player has to consider, and like a cursed item‌—‌which is bound, though it does not come with the warning label of a bind-on-equip item‌—‌it can have consequences to equip such a weapon or piece of armor. It is that decision-making that I think has an interesting value, because it adds depth to the role-playing aspects of Deathfire. Giving away this additional layer of complexity and player involvement, simply because using bound items in single-player games seems unorthodox, would seem silly to me, now that it’s on my radar. Who knows, this may even turn out to be a feature other games will pick up as well… and why not?

Catch Me If You Can book coverDon’t forge that we are still running a give-away for those who are willing to help us spread the word about Deathfire. This time around you can win a copy of the ”Catch Me If You Can: The Film and the Filmmakers” Pictorial Moviebook. This full-color book includes not only the entire script of the Steven Spielberg movie starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio, but also various photographs and behind the scenes tidbits about the making of the movie, as well as an introduction by Frank W. Abagnale, whose unique life story the film is based on. You’re interested? Well, just make sure you collect entries for the give-away below, and don’t forget, you can obtain more entries every day for the duration of the give-away, simply by tweeting about Deathfire.

a Rafflecopter giveaway


For the past few days I’ve been working on some exciting things in Deathfire, find that have propelled the game forward quite a bit in my mind. Items. Sounds trivial, health I know, online but items are the salt and pepper of any role-playing game.

It started when I decided to make a weapons list for the game. We have been working on parts of the user interface for the past two weeks or so, and it got to the point that I wanted to see some weapon icons in the respective slots. In order for Marian to begin drawing some icons, we began making a weapons list. It started out quite innocuously, but once I got into it, the list grew very rapidly, and at the end of the day we had a list of over 150 weapons for the game. And that is just the first go at it, not including any quest items and not including any unique, named weapons, which we plan to feature prominently in the game.

Adding all those will easily double the number of weapons in Deathfire, and I have no doubt that on top of that I probably forgot a good number of cool weapons that we will want to include in the game as we go along. All things said, in the end, I would estimate that we will have somewhere between 300 and 400 weapons. Just to give you a comparison, Shadows over Riva, the third of the Realms of Arkania games had less that 100 weapons. In fact, looking over the game’s source code showed me that the entire game contained a mere 480 items. So, in essence, it looks as if we will have nearly as many weapons as Shadows over Riva had items. Nice!

Here are few examples of the weapons from Deathfire
(Temporary artwork)

But a weapons list like this is useless, of course, if the items don’t actually make it into the game. I mean, anyone with a spread sheet can make a list easy enough. Especially, when Marian sent me a number of weapon icons a few days later, I really wanted to see these items in the game. It is quite interesting to note at this point that even in this day and age, there are no really qualified tools in the market for game design. (I am aware of articy:draft, of course, but since it is a Windows-only application, and horribly overpriced at that, it is of no use to me – or many other game developers for that matter, aside from the fact that it uses a very specific approach to game design from what I’ve seen, that seems to shoehorn you into specific patterns.)

The reality of game design is, that it really is a jungle out there and that to this day, most designers still use a lot of tools that are not really meant for the job, such as regular word processors or spread sheets. These inadequate tools typically create their own set of problems, especially because the data have to be somehow transferred from these document or spread sheet formats into data the game can actually use. It is a process that is tedious and error prone and often results in a lot of extra work, not to mention that designing item lists with item properties inside a spread sheet is anything but a satisfying process in and of itself. So I set out to write an Item Editor to make our lives easier.

Among the endless list of cool things about Unity3D, the middleware engine we’re using for the game, is that you can fully program it, including the development environment itself. So I began writing our Item Database Manager as an Editor Extension which works right inside the Unity environment. Not having to switch to external tools is an incredible boon that can not be overstated.

I wrote an item class, specializations for it to handle things such as weapons, armors, keys, consumables, etc and then began to write the editor that would allow us to enter the items in an internal database where the game can directly access them. Here’s a little screenshot for you to see what it looks like.

As you may notice there’s a bunch of drop-down menus that allow us to make key selections and depending on these selections the editor window will actually change, as weapons have a different set of parameters than armor, for example.

Just by means of comparison, take a look at what one of the external editors looked like that we used for the Realms of Arkania games. Bit of a different world, isn’t it?

When you take a look look at this Deathfire Item Editor I wrote for Unity, the window also gives you a good idea for the level of complexity we are building into his game, I think. This is a first go at the weapons, of course, but already you can see that there is tremendous flexibility built in to customize these weapons in many ways.

Nonetheless, I am certain that I’ve forgotten certain fields that we will need to add to the items as development progresses and requirement change or grow. Magic items, for example have not yet been properly tackled in the editor, as I will need to provide a hook to the magic spells/abilities the item may have. However, one of the truly great side effects of having this item editor and database right inside Unity is that it can grow with the game. Unlike static data formats imported from external tools, where you always have to be very aware of changes and additions to the data fields, here we are working with much more organic data that will adjust easily – and mostly automatically – to new requirements as we work on it. The amount time that procedure saves is invaluable while it also minimizes effort and hopefully errors – though that is always a double-edged sword. In development terms, convenient does not always equate safe.

To round out this post, I thought I’d give you a quick glimpse what the player might see in the actual game in the end, when calling up the stats for the weapon. This image is entirely temporary art, of course, but I think it illustrates the point nicely.

Temporary art for illustrative purposes only. Not an actual game item

Items may not be the most glamorous of things to talk or read about, but as you will agree, they are an integral part of any role-playing game, and how many of you have ever thought about the actual process of getting these items into a game? Well, now you know…

I hope you found this peek behind the scenes interesting. Feel free to let me know what topics you are most interested in and what subjects you’d like me to cover most in future blog posts.

Please make sure to also read this follow-up article with more details on the bound and attuned items in the game.

Catch Me If You Can book coverAt this point I would like to congratulate Kevin N. as the winner of the last give-away. Kevin won himself a copy of “Sons of Anarchy,” which he should find in his mailbox soon. But do not despair, you can be a winner, too. I have prepared another give-away for everyone out there, willing to help us spread the word about Deathfire. This time around you can win a copy of the ”Catch Me If You Can: The Film and the Filmmakers” Pictorial Moviebook. This full-color book includes not only the entire script of the Steven Spielberg movie starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio, but also various photographs and behind the scenes tidbits about the making of the movie, as well as an introduction by Frank W. Abagnale, whose unique life story the film is based on. You’re interested? Well, just make sure you collect entries for the give-away below, and don’t forget, you can obtain more entries every day for the duration of the give-away, simply by tweeting about Deathfire.

a Rafflecopter giveaway