Open Development, Organisation, Communication and Sharing

The Hit – first trailer

Since I began talking about The Hit, I’ve had some amazing conversations with people who are as passionate about the project as I am. Unfortunately, these conversations are all happening in different places: via email, on online forums, social networks, etc. so I end up having the same conversations with different people, and it takes more time away from development.

I do find these conversations immensely valuable, not because I’m short of ideas (I already have a vision for this game and enough mechanics already designed to last me for several years), but because so many people seem to have a clear idea of what I’m trying to do with The Hit, as well as a strong desire to either make their own game, or contribute to mine. I feel there has to be a way to focus all that creativity and energy into something worthwhile.

Another problem I have is one of organisation. I have thousands of notes and designs for mechanics, generally written on whatever I had to hand at the time. I’m getting better at organising myself, but this project has been more than chaotic for a while. In some ways that’s a positive thing, in that it’s forced me to simplify everything to the point where I can understand it all, but it’s also been a major headache at times, like if I need to explain to someone how a particular mechanic will work, and I haven’t got the time to explain what’s in my head. Plus, if I can simplify things, it will only accelerate the development.

So I’ve created a public wiki on the site, where anyone can see what I’m doing, and a dedicated subreddit, where anyone can discuss it. The wiki’s a mess at the moment, and that particular design doc is about a year out of date, but I’ll get round to improving and updating it soon. I’ll spend time on the subreddit whenever I can, and try to write my responses so that I can copy and paste them into the wiki.

I want to start sharing my systems before too much longer as well, so that other people can either use them in their own games, or contribute to mine. I love videogames, and I’m looking forward to seeing what other developers could do with these tools. It’s just a matter of figuring out how and when. Some of the systems I’m writing contain scripts or assets which don’t belong to me, so until I can find replacements, sharing those isn’t an option. Once I do, I’ll most likely share them via the Unity Asset Store, and leave the documentation on the wiki.

I’m very interested to see how a more open development process could work on an ambitious indie game project like this, which is why I’m prepared to share (almost) everything with you and let others learn from my mistakes. Hopefully, this will be a useful way to empower other indies, and allow them to create more ambitious games, faster.

So that’s it. The Wiki and subreddit are already live, and I hope you’ll be a part of this.

 

A note on using Reddit

My only reservation for using Reddit is that it has a reputation for being hostile, competitive and misogynistic. The truth is that, while this is definitely the case for some subreddits, many of the smaller subreddits are some of the most respectful and welcoming places online, where valuable conversation is not just possible, but commonplace. I hope /r/TheHit can be one of them, because it will only make the success of The Hit game more likely.

Wiki

/r/TheHit

Right, now I’m going to unplug myself from the internet for a few hours and get some work done. See you in the City!

 Dan

 

Coffee Me
If anyone would like to buy me a coffee, here’s the link: CoffeeMe
(A regular coffee is about £3/$5). So far,  I’ve received £68 in donations (£63.78 minus PayPal fees), and heard from some inspiring and passionate people. Thank you all so much.

I wish I could say this came to me in my sleep, but…

I had an idea the other night, for a feature I could add to The Hit. I was something completely ridiculous, and if I hadn’t been severely lacking in both sleep and critical faculties, I might’ve thrown it in the obscenely large pile of discarded ideas I keep next to my desk (it’s there to remind me to be realistic).

I’m planning to add in-game editing tools for everything, which will probably live in a separate, violence-free environment to The Hit (I suppose that’s a reveal, because I don’t think I’ve mentioned it publicly yet). Users will be able to create movies, interactive experiences or full-length games, and share them with friends. It’ll all be open, so if somebody makes something cool, other users can remix it, and hopefully other developers will be able to take apart a sequence and recreate it in their own games.

Absolutely everything in The Hit will be available to use, so if you want to take animals from the zoo (another reveal, but it’s way down the list), and recreate an African plain with a herd of 10,000 elephants, that will be possible.

What I didn’t think was possible was any way to integrate these sequences into The Hit game.

Until the other night.

After some thinking about how this is going to work, and assuming I can get this game funded, I’m going to confirm it now: The Hit will have dreams.

Initially, they’ll just be randomised, so I expect most of the dreams your character has will be broken, unfinished, and heavily involving buildings which resemble penises.

But I’ll improve it, and I’ll figure out ways of tying the dreams to events in the stories you’re currently playing, and the places you’ve been. At its simplest level, if you go to the zoo, you’ll be more likely to get dreams which feature animals. Later on, it may become possible to link the dreams thematically with recent events, like having a stock of naked-in-a-public-place type dreams, for when you’ve got a promotion review coming up (is that four reveals? I’ve lost count), or some vivid, psychadelic dreams if your agent gets drugged (five).

Okay, now that’s out the way, I’m going to stick that firmly in my future development pile and get back to making the core game. I’m still working on the first video trailer, which should be out soon, and building the framework for all this dynamic stuff (which is all going better than I could’ve hoped).

See you around the city soon, Agent.

 

A Quick Beg

If the sight of starving game developers begging for coffee offends you, please skip this next paragraph.

I’m still broke, sleep-deprived and desperately trying to avoid the lure of freelance work so I can get v1 of this game into your hands ASAP, so if anybody would like to buy me a coffee, please click this link, and thanks.  CoffeeMe

Dan

Dynamic Narrative in The Hit

I’ve been dreaming about a player-driven dynamic narrative system for the last 20 years, and trying to come up with a workable design for the last 5. The Hit will be the first part of that to see a public release. I’m going to need as much user feedback and player metrics as possible, so I’m designing the game to be enjoyable and attractive from the start, and only building in the framework for the dynamic narrative system. Once the game is released, I’ll start to add more of the dynamic systems, and develop systems for creating richer and deeper narrative content.

One thing I should make clear: I’m not trying to create a dynamic narrative system for a traditional FPS or RPG, though if anyone reading this is, I hope they will find the following to be useful. Instead, I’m building the game around the dynamic narrative system, and many of the design and mechanical systems in The Hit stem from that.

Here’s an overview of how the dynamic narrative system will work.

Level 0: Pedestrians & The City.
At the simplest level, the City is full of pedestrians. Each pedestrians has an NPC style [which just describes, in numbers the game can understand, how the character looks] and a looped path, which they will walk along forever. The pedestrians are very simple, and ridiculously cheap in terms of processor time, so thousands can exist simultaneously in a scene. They’re also synchronised across the network, so that other online players will see exactly the same pedestrians on the same street.

The City itself is composed of sections (each about half a block in size), which each have a set number of assigned pedestrians. Generation rules for each city section will dictate the percentage of different NPC types (suits, casual, etc.) which will be generated for each section.

This is where I am at the moment. I’m concentrating on making The Hit fully playable and polished for an initial release, at which point I’ll start building the level 1 systems into the game.

Level 1: NPCs and The Cloud.
If the player interacts with a pedestrian (Initially, if they speak to the pedestrian, photograph them, or follow them for a set amount of time), some procedurally generated information will be attached to that pedestrian, and it will become an NPC. NPCs will have a name, a job, and two or more destinations (usually home and workplace, though they may also have a car, which they will use to drive from one to the other). The simple looping path they follow will also be replaced by a path with a start and an end, so that anyone following will see them behaving realistically.

The data used to create the NPC will be taken from the cloud, which is a persistent, and continually changing set of information that covers every aspect of the gameplay. It is essentially a reserve of pre-generated information, so the game always has suitable data on-hand for when it is required. During quiet moments of gameplay, the cloud will be creating new sets of data, including NPC data, but also procedurally generated posters, signs, billboards, graffiti, paint-jobs etc.

If the NPC data is not used (say, if the player begins a conversation with the NPC, but doesn’t learn their name, or discover where they live or work), it is either discarded completely, or returned to the cloud, and the NPC will revert to being a pedestrian again. This avoids the need to store data about every single pedestrian in the city, memory which can be much better used elsewhere.

This is where I think the system described recently by Ken Levine at GDC falls down. It is not necessary to simulate everything in the game-world, as long as what the player experiences feels real enough. More signal, less noise. Dwarf Fortress, the reigning king of emergent content, doesn’t actually create a narrative through simulation, it just generates enough ‘noise’, with a specific enough context for the the player to be able to create a signal from the noise. However, most players won’t have the patience to filter out all that noise in order to create an interesting narrative.

The pedestrians are essentially a programmed animation of the flow of people through a city. As long as that animation is convincing enough, as long as the NPCs are believable enough people up close, and as long as the switch between them is not too obvious, it will appear to the player as though everything in the world is fully simulated.

Level 2: Characters and the Director.
An NPC isn’t quite a character yet. Characters can be created in one of two ways: Firstly, if the player spends enough time in the vicinity of the NPC, it will request character data from the cloud. The other method is via the Director. Similar in purpose to the Director AI in the Left 4 Dead series, the Director is constantly watching over the player, and can make decisions about the various narrative threads which are in play. It can pull data from the cloud on the fly, and attach it to NPCs in the game.

Characters have traits, which can have exclusion rules, so that conflicting traits are never assigned to the same character. Traits are modular, and can be common, rare or unique. Most unique traits will have a story (see below) attached to them.

[Examples of Traits: Hard of hearing, Southern accent, Religious, Unsociable, Gung-ho, Insanely Jealous, Relative is a special character, Deathwish, Serial killer]

A small, but important part of creating abstract systems is coming up with ways to represent that system visually, so that users can create and share content quickly. One of my goals is to open up The Hit’s systems to story designers, who will need an easy way to map traits onto their characters, or to understand how collaborators have set up those characters. It’ll most likely end up looking something like the Chakra system, or the Kabbalah.

Characters can also be created by designers, either in full or in part, in which case the modular system will allow the designers to rapidly bring a new character to life. For The Hit, I’m not planning to use spoken dialogue at all in the near future, which will make prototyping and testing significantly cheaper and faster.

The Story Game
The Director is essentially playing its own game with the player, and has a few rules it operates by. It has a memory of when the most recent plot-beats (events related to other events) occurred, and will try to ensure that beats continue to happen on a regular basis, occasionally punctuated with standalone incident. It also knows how far the player is along the current major and minor story arcs. That part’s a bit more complex. Probably the best way to explain it is to use a card game as a metaphor.

Stories are made up of discrete events, and can exists as individual events, chains of events, or arcs. There is no limit to how long a chain or an arc can be, and stories can also be nested inside larger arcs.

Each event will have a trigger condition, where a set number of pieces need to be in place before the event can begin. Conditions can be acquaintances (or rather their traits), objects or information, and can be thought of as cards in the player’s hand. The Director will constantly be sorting its list of events into order of desirability. If the player is missing just one card for a high-value event, the Director may decide to ‘force’ the card into the player’s hand by means of a smaller event.

Example of an Event 1 (Western genre): The player has tracked down the Jacoby gang, who have holed up at the family farm. Through stealth and strategy, the player kills the gang one by one, until only 18 year-old Larry Jacoby remains. Instead of fighting, he throws down his gun, and offers to trade his freedom for a particular piece of information. This event could be used to force a character (not necessarily Larry himself) into the player’s hand, or an item, or even just information, regardless of whether or not the player lets Larry Jacoby live, and could also provide an exciting and surprising story beat.

Example of an Event 2 (Fantasy genre): the player has a magical artifact, and is on friendly terms with a powerful special character, who discovers that the artifact is both incredibly dangerous, and also sought after by a powerful evil special character. He/she decides the player should transport the artifact to a location where it may be destroyed, and calls upon some capable friends to assist the player. This could be the start of an epic arc, and would also allow for the introduction of many characters at once.

The advantages of this system are many: rapidity of development, flexibility and game variety, and it also will allow designers to create and alter events as they go, instead of having to design everything at the outset.

One point I should stress here is that events will be, as far as is possible, player-directed. The Director is continually trying to set up events around the player, but they will be left for the player to trigger unless it becomes absolutely necessary to force an event. In order for this to happen, the Director can have triggers for multiple events in play at any one time, and will increase that number, and therefore the likelihood of triggering an event, the longer the player goes without experiencing a plot-beat. When the player does trigger an event, most of the other triggers will be removed from play until they are needed again. Only some one-off events will remain; we don’t want the player to be confused by multiple plots. Again, this could be another big advantage over a traditional RPG Quest system. It will allow designers to pace the story, rather than letting player stack up multiple missions in order to maximise their chances of gaining XP from any location.

Multiplayer is being built into The Hit from the start, and should offer less problems than in traditional narrative games. Because characters and events are generated per-game, designers will never be faced with the problem of characters existing in different states in each player’s game. Also, characters can be shared between players while they are connected, then withdrawn to their respective games when they leave the session. The main effect multiplayer will have on gameplay is that the Director will have more cards to play with, and therefore more opportunities to create events and advance the story.

As I said at the top, right now my focus is solely on making The Hit an entertaining and engaging experience, and get the game out later this year, and then start releasing the user creation tools soon after that. If everything goes according to plan, the first dynamic story content should be appearing in the game before the end of 2015.

 

Psychopathy, Subtlety and The City’s Finest

It’s no secret that videogames and power fantasies are a perfect match. If you want to blast your way into a heavily-guarded fortress, leaving nothing but red stains and widows, videogames have you covered. If you want to be the ultimate race car driver/future soldier/fighter pilot/dancer/farmer/truck driver or princess, then there’s a game for you.

What they’re not so good at is subtlety. Take a typical, well-made AAA game like Bioshock Infinite, for instance. Infinite paints an incredibly rich and detailed world, but if the only way you can view that world is down the barrel of a gun, then everything is reduced to threats and scenery. If it moves, shoot it. If not, then move on. It’s a shooting range, and they’re only targets.

The problem with that is, within the context of the game’s fiction, they’re not just targets; they’re people. By treating them as nothing more than targets, you’re basically playing a psychopath on a killing spree. The narrative attempts to cater for this, mainly by playing on the moral ambiguity of the character, but if the only stories we can tell are about psychopaths, what does that mean for gaming?

I’m not trying to say that we should stop making these games. First-person shooters can be immensely fun, the stories they tell can be entertaining and rewarding, and a virtual killing-spree can be the catharsis that gets you through a hard day. But is that really it? In the evolution of the first-person shooter, have we already reached the end of the road, as far as narrative goes?

I think not. I believe we have a long way to go yet, and many different directions we can travel in.

Which brings me back to The Hit.

In The Hit, I want you to hesitate before you draw a weapon. I want you to be aware of who is around you, and having assessed the risks, and made your decision without perfect knowledge, I want to make you breath faster and your heart quicken when you reach for your pistol. I want you to feel it.

These guys are going to be a big part of that.

Police in The Hit will be smart, fast and deadly. Firearms and damage will be fairly realistic, and you won’t be a bullet sponge. If you do find yourself in a shootout with the cops, you won’t have anything like auto-aim, magical shields, infinite bullets or regenerating health to help you, but neither will they. 

There will be a few more twists to this system, but I’m not ready to reveal those quite yet. I’m aiming to make the game as entertaining as possible, but I’m not making a power fantasy, and I won’t be encouraging you to play a psychopath. Those games don’t interest me as a developer.

So just like in real life, if you’re up against the police, the best thing you can do is drop your weapon. The second best thing to do will be to run and hide.

Of course, the absolute best thing to do is find out who your competition is, and make sure the police are after them instead.

How to play The Hit, in one-year-ago-vision

Hi. Dan here.

Seeing as this is the first blog post, I figured I’d explain the core game loop. I’ll be putting out a video in the next week or so which shows the same thing, but with the game’s current graphics, and a lot more sound and motion. For today though, these are my original mockups, and show how the game looked a year ago when I first started.

When you start the game, you’ll find yourself on the streets of the City, armed only with a pistol and a mobile phone. Keep that pistol out of sight for now, and take out the phone, ’cause you’re about to get a message.

1. Get a contract

The contract system is the pivot around which everything else turns. Hopefully you’ll be given a nice, clear photo of the intended target, but you might only get a description, or even just a hotel room number.

2. Travel to Target

Once you’ve been given a photo of the target and their current location, you have to make your way there. At the moment, walking is the only option, but taxis, driveable cars, motorbikes and trains will all eventually be available.

3. Travel to Target

Tracking down the target plays out like a tense and lethal game of ‘Where’s Wally?’ First find the target, then figure out how to take them down without arousing too much attention.

4. Complete Contract

When you do find the dark alleyway that’s right for you (and wrong for the target), seal the deal as fast and as quietly as you can. but be careful…

5. Look out for other players

You’re never alone in the City. There are thousands of people around you, and some of them will be other players. If you’re very sharp-eyed, or they’re just incredibly careless, you may spot them before they become a threat. You can choose to kill them, or…

6. Take Photographs

…you could take their photo! Not as lethal as a bullet, but shooting people with a camera won’t raise as much attention.

7. Call hits on other players

If you’re ultra-sneaky, you can send a player’s photo back to the Agency, and call a hit on them! There’s nothing better than keeping the other players busy fighting each other while you concentrate on the main target.

8. Don't get caught!

It’s not just the other players you have to worry about. There’s also a full compliment of police in the City, and several thousand NPCs who know their number. It’s possible to get away from the cops, but it’s best not to get in their way in the first place.

So that’s it for the core mechanics. I’ll try to expand on these systems in later posts, and most likely say something about how and why the visual aethetic has changed over the last year.

Thanks for reading!