Archive | December, 2012

Fireside Chat with Jordan Weisman, and Mike’s Dev Diary!

Hey there, everyone! Happy Awakening Day!

Even though the 6th World’s Awakening was technically (according to 80s logic) in 2011, we at Harebrained Schemes, along with our friends at Catalyst Game Labs and Cliffhanger Productions are excited that today marks the start of The Year of Shadowrun. It’s going to be a fun (and REALLY busy) year of new games set in the Shadowrun Universe. To celebrate, we’re launching Shadowlands. It’s a series of blog posts and Tweets from the 2050s, so if that sounds cool, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook. Oh, and if you’re a 2070s fan, check out Jackpoint!

Anywho, if you haven’t been subject to the apocalypse and/or surprise bodily transformation, we assume you’re sufficiently capable of watching Jordan’s Fireside Chat Video. Did you notice the music at the beginning and end? It’s new Shadowrun music! The samples in the video aren’t so much tracks from the game as they are homages to the music from the classic Shadowrun games, meant to give you a little taste of what’s coming up in SR:R.

The opening clip is by Sam Powell, who composed the music for the SEGA game, and who’s going to be working on the music for our Berlin story. The closing clip is by is by Marshall Parker and his son Gavin. Marshall worked on the original SNES game, so we’re really happy to have them on board working on music for our Seattle story. We hope you like ‘em!

Our Design Team: Left to Right, Kevin Maloney, Trevor King-Yost, Mike Mulvihill.

In addition to Jordan’s fireside chat, we thought we’d give you another look behind the curtain… Here’s the latest developer diary, from grizzled designer Mike Mulvihill! He’s been working with our other designers, Kevin Maloney and Trevor King-Yost, to figure out the ins and outs of Shadowrun’s mechanics.

Mike Mulvihill – 12/21/12

Eight months ago, while crunching on Strikefleet Omega, Jordan and Mitch started a flurry of high-energy conversations. ”We’re bringing Shadowrun back ”… “An authentic turn-based game”… “Kickstarter!”

We had plenty of tools to work with and plenty of feedback on where to start (thank you Shadowrun fans!!!:

25+ years of pen & paper RPG products using four very different rules sets (one of which I led); A SEGA game that had a great and fond following all these years later; An SNES game that had just as great and fond following as well; My experience in translating SR into other game types (a card game, an action figure game and other stuff); Millions of written words.

With all those tools, the excitement of the community, and the trust of Jordan and Mitch, my only possible answer was – “Let’s make a game!”

So, where to start?

Our first decision was simply one of ideology. In order to ensure that the “feel” of Shadowrun would translate to our new format, we started boiling down what was most loved by fans, no matter how they were introduced to the world of Shadowrun. As designers, we needed to juggle a handful of core elements: the uniqueness of the world, the stories we want to tell, the choice of actions players need to take, the risk and reward of making those choices, the characters’ growth, and especially the fun that players spoke about when playing all the previous versions of Shadowrun.

Mike showing off his figure.

We also knew the game we wanted to make: a story-driven team-based tactical game, which tries to capture that “around the table” atmosphere of an old-school pen and paper RPG. The first order of business was codifying the tactics. To achieve this, we needed to hit our first concrete goal – creating a mathematical base that the engineers could implement and that we could use as our core design engine. We decided to call this the Action Calculator (AC1).

To mimic Shadowrun’s feel for the majority of the players, we wanted an Attribute / Skill / Specialization hierarchy like the ones was used in all of the electronic games and the first three editions of Shadowrun. Setting the game in the early 2050’s reinforced that decision. Now it was fun with numbers… and yes, for all you old-schoolers, we actually attempted to model rolling d6s. Unfortunately, the number-crunching in AC1 proved that chucking all those d6s around was not sustainable for what we wanted and not expandable into the other systems we’d planned.

From the ashes of AC1 came AC2: a new mathematical approach that doesn’t necessarily use the old math systems of the RPGs but mimics them in order to ensure that we’re true to the feeling of Shadowrun combat. With that math done and with AC2 passing the old “eyeball test”, we took our mechanics to the next level – we created a Shadowrun board game. That’s right: we played with miniatures, terrain, dice rolling, and “role-playing”, while I fed numbers into various spreadsheets to see what felt good and what…didn’t.

Each day, we would add a new twist to the board game: burst fire, shotguns, grenades, magic, swords, healing, full auto, etc. The next day, I’d rebuild the spreadsheet, adjusting numbers that felt out of whack, and adding new calcs to push the limits of what we could do (cover modifiers, armor, staging of damage up and down, stun effects, etc.).

To finish up the board game task, we wrote down our “mechanics” in rulebook form and it became the first working design document. I‘m not sure any of the original words of that document are still there…but that’s a whole other story! Nevertheless, AC2 stands today, along with over 25 spreadsheet tabs of older versions of the math engine – but most importantly, it still stands.

Turning the math aspect over to Engineering and watching them develop it into a game I could actually play on screen AND SEE IT WORK was just an incredible feeling. Even more incredible was knowing that the system didn’t just drive combat. It was the basis for the magic, decking and summoning systems as well! Also, we were able to guarantee every advancement a PC makes to his stats will have a noticeable in-game improvement. I’m actually really proud of that.

Some will say that real game design begins at this point – when it’s on-screen. This is when you take your “baby” and let the team try it. It’s when, as Jordan likes to say, “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. You end up answering a lot of “working right” questions….

Do the cover modifiers work right?
Is the recoil calc for Burst Fire working right?
Are the grenade tosses (and missed skill checks) working right?

And every tester comes back with suggestions for improving what you did and most of the time they are absolutely right. This is a tough time for designers because it becomes a quandary between intent, execution and expectation. We have to explain what we intended the action/result to be. We have to check to see that the engineers have executed (or can execute) our intention. And then we have to evaluate that what we put on screen matches what we think the player’s expectations are.

It can be a challenging process in such a collaborative studio because we all try to agree that there’s problem and then we all try to agree on the right fix. But the final call is Jordan’s, so the decision-making is often pretty fast. We basically do everything fast – but not so fast that we take shortcuts. “Go fast; don’t rush.” is Mitch’s development mantra.

But making the math work isn’t all we’ve been up to! While doing all that, we were also tasked with many other designs, like the interaction of character abilities and skills, working with the engineers on the AI (as you read last time), the conversation system, gear, NPC and Awakened creature creation, the story itself, and finally, the editor which allows us (and eventually you) to make the actual missions and tell the story. Look for more detail on the editor in the future. It’s pretty sweet.

I hope that gives you some insight into what we in design have been working on and producing over the last few months. And as I like to say…

Have Fun!
Play Games!

Mike Mulvihill

Chris’ Developer Diary

Hi! As we mentioned earlier, we’re going to continue giving you small snippets and insights into our development process on Shadowrun Returns. So this latest dev diary falls to me, Chris Kohnert. I head up the engineering efforts in our little office.

A picture of Chris Kohnert, starring Chris Aardappel’s photobomb

I think first off, it bears mentioning that Shadowrun Returns really is a pretty ambitious project. There’s a lot of depth and tactical strategy we’re trying to put into this game, while also keeping alive the fluid and dynamic elements that make a good story-based RPG fun.

One of the most important elements of any good single player game is a challenging and believable AI system. Since we’ve recently been tying up loose ends in the bulk of our core AI, I figured it would be a good time shine a bit of light into some of the elements of it, and how it integrates with some of the story-related gameplay elements of SR:R.

For this game, we have many different ways for you to approach any given scenario: do you try a frontal assault? Do you try to don a disguise and trick the guards into letting you into the server room? Do you need to protect that decker as he overtakes that computer node in order to take control of that mini-gun turret? In order to facilitate this flexible approach to tackling a level, the AI must be able to interweave many different disciplines and game systems and respond to a lot of different situations.

Let’s talk a bit about how this works at a very high level. The very first thing an AI needs to do is to be aware of its surroundings. For instance, when you move around a scene and perform actions, a guard will make an “awareness” check (i.e. “Do I see him?”). This is where stealth, line of sight, and audible cues are sensed and perceived (and also where that awesome ninja suit might come in handy). Assuming the guard sees you, he must then make what we’re calling a “perception” check (i.e. “What do I notice about him?”).

This is where the non-combat elements of the game start to come into play. For example, if you’ve managed to procure a guard’s uniform, he may take a look at you and decide you aren’t a threat. Though, that uniform may not do you any good if you’re carrying a couple of assault rifles when the standard issue weapon is a pistol. (Yes, we actually model that level of sophistication! Though whether it gets into the final game is based on how much fun it winds up being. . .)

Chris Aardappel, who’s taking point on the AI operations. Yes ladies, he’s taken.

Once an AI has perceived you and identified you as a threat, it drops down into a high level planning system where it determines what types of actions it should perform. Things like staying near a VIP to protect him or her or barreling down the hallway to take out the interlopers are resolved at this level. This level of logic, in our system, is implemented using behavior trees. They can be very useful for choosing among high level alternatives and goals.

Next, it comes down to tools of the trade. And in this case, that means pulling out your gun or choosing to unleash that Force 4 fireball spell. Our system performs a weighted analysis of options available comparing the action points (AP) available, AP spend-per-action, potential damage, chance-to-hit, splash damage potential, friendly fire, etc. It selects the best option (or two) and queues it up to be performed. This may also involve moving to get in range (or better range) and/or possibly moving to take advantage of nearby cover.

Eventually it all lands in a low level system that is the nuts and bolts of driving the character around on the screen. Choosing which animation to play, how it meshes with the current state of the character (crouching and facing), which weapon(s) are equipped, whether and how much to turn and face… these are all driven by state machines, a simple, but trusted friend of any programmer.

When you put these parts together, it is a very powerful (but complicated) tool. You can see from the diagram that it manages to hook into many of the exciting gameplay elements we’re working on as well. We want to be able to build Runs that are your standard smash and grab, but also be able to play dress up and possibly sneak into a dinner party wearing that fancy suit, or to woo that bank cashier into giving you the extra details regarding the bank manager’s schedule without resorting to violence (necessarily).

One of my favorite features that might not be evident at first (it’s in that diagram if you look carefully), is the ability for a superior’s perception check to influence or even override those made by underlings. For example, let’s say you had a squad of Lone Star security guards and their commander protecting a genetics lab. If you manage to convince the commander that you belong there (i.e. pass a perception check) through, say, intimidation, fake papers, or even disguise, then when you encounter any of the guards later on, they will check with their officer as to whether you belong there.

If the commander says you’re good, the guard will just wave you on. Assuming, of course, that the guard has a high enough discipline trait. If he’s a slacker or doesn’t trust (or like) his superior, he may just ignore his commander, and make his own check. This could be for good or bad, depending on whether he thinks you’re suspicious or not. Currently, this type of “consult with superior” check is simply done invisibly behind the scenes for the sake of gameplay speed and flow. If you wanted a scripted scenario where the guard stops you, rings his commander, and then makes that assessment upon hearing back, you would probably want to dive into the trigger system and implement that kind of logic there.

We’ve come a long way on AI, but there is definitely a lot of work still remaining. We have a lot of different skills and abilities being coded up right now, so we’ll need to spend some time folding that extra logic into the various levels. We have to make sure the enemy Shamans summon things correctly and that mages will use that trusty Fireball I mentioned earlier without going unconscious from the strain. We’re also continually refining the overall believability of the AI to make sure it feels smart and fun while maintaining a proper challenge level.

That’s about it for my little peek behind the scenes. I hope it gives you an idea of what we’ve been up to on Shadowrun Returns!