July Update: Dev Diary by James Henley
about 2 months ago
– Thu, Jul 27, 2017 at 11:52:02 PM
This is James Henley, Lead Level Designer on the System Shock reboot. We thought that we’d give a little bit of insight into the level design process this month! Being a creative process, there’s a lot of variation from person to person but what follows is my personal approach. I’m going to speak in generals so try not to read too much into game content specifics from this.
First off, however, let’s address the elephant in the room...
System Shock’s levels are already designed, aren’t they?
This update is about process rather than intent, so I’ll keep this brief! The purpose of a reboot is to leverage an existing foundation while still allowing the freedom to re-envision, clarify, or otherwise expand upon a work. You could view it as building a new body to house an old soul.
The answer to the question is both “yes” and “no.” The original levels were designed under specific philosophies and restrictions that have grown or otherwise evolved in the years since. To that end, much of my work involves translating old intentions and bringing them forward to work in tandem with the technology and principles we have today. My goal is to create a believable world space that retains System Shock’s original sense of exploration and freedom.
I won’t get into the specifics of my design philosophies at the moment but let’s just be clear that I’m not talking about the modern trend of corridor-shooter level design; I’m an advocate of choices, exploration, and the freedom to tackle challenges in a variety of ways. My job is to develop a believable world space for the player to explore, not a cinematic corridor to be raced through.
Before we can place so much as a single piece of flooring, we must first consider the goals and themes of an area, addressing questions such as:
What section of the station does this level occur on?
What are the major narrative beats it must cover?(General objectives, Key events & interactions)
Is it a new tileset / major set of assets?
This information is compiled in a short document to provide material for the larger discussion meeting that comes next.
A level designer’s work can often be viewed as the end product of an assembly line, loosely speaking. Everything in the game feeds into it and much of what we rely on are the fruits of another department’s labors; creatures, tiles and art assets, hackable objects, etc. Accordingly, stakeholders meet to hash out some of the more detailed points of the level, such as:
What kind of artistic themes and points of interest can we leverage?
What is the player’s toolbox? (Abilities or powers, Weapons and other possible gear)
What is the designer’s toolbox? (New and returning creatures, Mechanics to introduce, Gating mechanisms, Features of the area itself, thematically or geometrically)
Even in the digital age, I’m still a fan of working with paper first and foremost! I have a small notebook that I cram full of bullet point notes to clarify thoughts, sketch out room designs, etc. There’s just something about not being bound to my computer that lets me feel more creative at this stage.
I like to start by establishing the overall gameplay beats -- the pacing and flow of both narrative and game elements within a level’s critical* path. This means determining what the major objectives are at a more granular level. Where do you go? How do you get there? What affects your ability to get there and what options do you have for solving that?
* The specific events, be they branching or linear, that must be encountered in order to progress from beginning to end of a level
I write the major events, objective updates, etc. on cue cards. Yes, cue cards. I spread them around on the floor and start grouping, ordering, and reordering them to get a feel for strengths and weaknesses in the flow of events. I enjoy this approach because iteration is simple, rapid, and I can sort through and make adjustments anywhere from my office to a coffee shop -- though the latter is less appreciative about the whole “spreading them out on the floor” thing.
While the cue cards have helped hash out a lot of information at the high level, that doesn’t necessarily tell a lot about the physical layout. I have one more step before I dive into the in-engine side of the process: conceptual mapping. It’s a fancy term for a pretty simple thing; a flow-chart mapping out the spatial relation of level locations and events, as shown below. It gives an opportunity to identify potential for shortcuts, space requirements, and helps clarify a few other bits and pieces.
Even in a sci-fi setting, there are still a number of equivalent locations that we already have ingrained context for in the world around us, such as factories, hospitals, department stores, etc. During this stage, I do a lot of research into floor plans and layouts to determine what existing contexts can be leveraged in order to help make the space more believable. Would this kind of room really be near that kind? Are these features logical or are we placing them this way strictly “because plot?”
There is a point where you have to draw the line in favor of the “it’s a game” argument but there’s little reason to abandon environmental believability prior to that. Ultimately, it’s a balancing act of realism vs. intended player experience.
The Gray Box
To be honest, all the doc preparation in the world doesn’t change the fact that level design is ultimately an organic process once you get into the engine itself; it’s strictly a set of guidelines to help propel the work along. Planning for the space isn’t quite the same as working within it. New ideas form, plans change, and feedback is taken into account. That’s just the way things go.
So why all the initial work on paper? I think Eisenhower said it best:
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
Personally, I build much faster and more effectively with a handful of guidelines established.
The first stage of actual level creation is known as the gray box. Temporary assets are used to block out the various rooms and corridors, stub out points of interest, and ultimately create the framework for a playable area. It’s not pretty, but it’s the bone structure of the game world’s physical space. A designer’s job is to make it functional and effective; an artist will make it look damn good later!
Gray boxing is a critical phase in the life of a level. Iterations can be performed fairly quickly at this point without as much risk of the changes impacting other departments. We play through the level frequently to feel out travel times, sight lines, room designs, verticality, and all manner of minutiae. Side paths, alternate routes, and the like are implemented and tested.
Gray box sections can even be provided to art as reference for more accurate concepting of props and space purposes.
Feedback is taken and adjustments are made accordingly. As a general rule, I assume that nothing is right the first time; iteration is the key to a polished design.
Stubbing in the Gameplay
Once the gray box geometry begins to stabilize, encounters and event markers can be stubbed in. Even if the correct creatures aren’t available, something can always be placed as an approximation. This allows us to:
Plan encounter locations
Plot patrol paths
Arrange stealth routes or alternative solutions to combat
Test the overall pacing in a variety of playstyles
From a non-combat perspective, we can also start plotting the specifics of:
Key item placement (Weapons,
Progression items or stand-ins, Information provisions critical to narrative)
Event areas for scripting
Polish and Iteration and Iteration and Iteration and...
As you’d expect, all of this is run through another round of feedback and iterations! This cycle of adjustments continues until design signs off and hands the level over to the artists so that they can work their own magic. While they do that, we can continue to iterate on and polish the non-geometry gameplay elements -- though the occasional change to geo may still be necessary. Nature of the beast, and all.
Throughout the entire level design process, communication lines are kept open with the Art department and ideas are shared about the look, shapes, or visual goals. It’s not enough to just pass them a box and say “make this pretty.” They have their own goals to meet and intentions to express, so a strong dialogue between level designers and artists is critical to making sure that everyone is getting what they need out of the world that’s being built.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek under the hood at how a level initially takes shape. I’m sure Art’s side of the process would have cooler things to show but, hey, a level’s gotta start somewhere!
CS:GO "Oceanic Ordinance"
Calling all CS:GO players! Come vote for the "Oceanic Ordinance", a custom P90 with the Nightdive Studios logo paint job.
3 months ago
– Fri, Jun 23, 2017 at 12:02:44 AM
Hi everyone! Jason here to share how E3 went for me and the team. We didn’t have an official presence at E3 this year, but a few of us attended.
The biggest thing we noticed was all of the new attendees this year with the public badges. The E3 folks assigned bright neon yellow/green badges to them, so they stood out amidst the clear-plastic dev badges. This turned into an interesting social study for myself. E3’s of the past were filled with devs walking around the show floor, looking tired and apathetic to their surroundings. This year, however, over half of the faces I saw (ie, the public attendees) were filled with excitement and enthusiasm. I know other devs have bemoaned the very crowded show floor, but to me, I was delighted to see so much appreciation for the game industry.
It reminded me of the first time I went to E3 over 15 years ago and how I felt seeing all of the games being presented directly by their developers. Everything was fresh and new. Over time, devs get used to all of that and the luster tends to fade. Seeing a bunch of new faces at E3 this year excited to see everything was truly inspiring. Sure it was more crowded, but I’d rather see crowds of people with amazed looks on their faces than tired devs any day!
Another thing that happened at E3 was running into some amazing Shock fans. It warms my heart whenever someone recognizes us and lets us know how much the Shock series has meant to them, and how much they’re looking forward to our reboot. In general, as you folks have noticed through Discord, I love talking to the community and hearing everyone’s thoughts, and experiencing that in person is even more of a treat :-D
Oh, another thing some of you may have noticed is that I did a few interviews during E3. The interview with NVIDIA and my shiny head has been posted here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rj52BqZVG-c I did another interview with Epic for Unreal stuff which should be posted soon. In every interview I do, I always do my best to acknowledge our loyal backers and how awesome all of you are :-)
Steam Summer Sale!
It is finally that time of the year again, the Steam Summer Sale! Lots of Nightdive Studios titles discounted up to 85%! https://goo.gl/EnEM8t
Q: Will System Shock be Mac compatible?
A: Yes. Mac, Linux, and Windows
Q: How does the sizing work on the shirts?
A: We will update the Backerkit entry with a sizing chart for both male and female shirts.
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A: We're still considering PayPal - hold tight!
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A: A few months before launch, we will send out a number of updates before we're ready to finalize orders.
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A: We are so sorry with the delay, we were working hard with Backerkit to resolve this issue. At this time, all backers at that tier should no longer have to worry!
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May Update: Dev Diary Audio Edition
4 months ago
– Thu, May 18, 2017 at 11:55:40 PM
As a fun little initiative to show you our world of development, we want to introduce Dev Diaries! We will have these from time to time to show different perspectives of what is going on. Without further delay, I give you Jonathan Peros:
This is Jonathan Peros, Audio Director on System Shock. I wanted to include a quick update to give some insight into an aspect of the musical direction of System Shock! As you all can probably guess, working on a reboot of a classic game definitely has its own set of unique challenges; we are all tasked with the job of making a good game by today’s standards, but not losing sight of what made the original game great. As such, I’ve gone back to the files for System Shock 1’s soundtrack over and over, spending as much time as I can absorbing what made Greg LoPiccolo’s work on the original music awesome. I thought I would share a few of the great things about System Shock 1’s soundtrack here with you, some of the game’s most dedicated fans.
System Shock 1’s soundtrack was far ahead of its time in many respects. One of the most obvious ways that this shows itself is in its procedural music system. The original game had a MIDI soundtrack, which would play through various soundcards in order to produce the game’s music. This is different than today’s game music, which is for the most part pre-recorded audio files playing back. Because the music was played back note-by-note through data on the soundcard, this opened many possibilities for how the game dealt with music. The music for each level is not contained in a single file, but instead each level’s music is built procedurally from different musical building blocks, controlled by parameters in the game. The core set of each level’s musical building blocks are named with a gameplay state (“W”alking, “P”eril, “C”ombat) and a section (“A”,”B”,”C”,…). “WA” can play into “WB”, unless the game state changes to peril, at which it may play into “PB”. This kind of interactive system provides both varying intensity, which mirrors the pacing of the gameplay, and linear sections, which give the music a sense of forward momentum and structure. This procedural music system is then made more interactive by having various layers which represent the various enemies that are overlaid on top of the core level music, based on the proximity of enemies of that type. These layers are used to represent these enemies across the entire soundtrack, giving each enemy type a theme of sorts! Very cool, stuff!
Reactor transitioning from “PB” music to “CA” music:
Mutant enemy type musical layer:
Another very noteworthy feature about the System Shock 1 soundtrack is its unique use of timbre (the perceived sound quality of a tone that distinguishes different types of sound and instruments). As I mentioned, the System Shock 1 soundtrack was done through MIDI playback. MIDI files are not audio files; MIDI is a data protocol, which tells another device various musical information, like “Note On”, “Pitch”, “Velocity”, “Tempo”, etc. In this case, the device is a computer’s soundcard. Each soundcard has its own set of sounds that are programmed into it, and MIDI then calls on these various sounds with a “Program Change” message. Then, when “Note On” messages are received (along with pitch and velocity), the soundcard knows what sound to play, at what pitch, and how loud, until a “Note Off” message for that pitch is received. The important part to note in this is that the sounds on each soundcard are preprogrammed. Most soundcards have their own takes on very generic sounds (Overdriven Guitar, String Ensemble 1, Clarinet) as well as some more unique ones (Guitar Fret Noise, “Goblins”). System Shock 1, however, used these sounds in very non-traditional ways! Oftentimes, Guitar Fret Noise is played at a very high pitch at 16th notes in order to get some very non-traditional percussion sounds. You’d be very surprised to know that one of your favorite backing arpeggios in L01 Medical’s music is played back on two Bagpipes tracks, with chords being produced by rapidly playing notes on the Acoustic Guitar (nylon) channel. One of my favorite tracks in the game is the Groves music, because of its very creative use of MIDI controls on all of the various layers which come in and out.
Guitar Fret Noise MIDI instrument used as a percussive instrument:
Bagpipe and Acoustic Guitar used creatively:
Percussive Organ layer in Groves (pictured above):
The last cool bit of musical implementation in System Shock 1’s soundtrack that I want to talk about is its use of delay. Delay is a musical effect, which generally takes an input audio signal, waits for a duration, and then plays that audio signal back on top of the original signal. Because of System Shock 1’s MIDI soundtrack, this effect had to be emulated by manually copying and pasting the MIDI Note On and Note Off messages at some later time in that instrument’s channel. This overlaying is done in System Shock 1’s soundtrack as a musical subdivision of the beat, which gives the music really cool compositional elements! Often you’ll hear the soundtrack doing interesting phrasing, by something like playing an eighth note arpeggio with it delayed on top of itself three sixteenth notes late. This was utilized more than just an effect, as it is used most of the time in popular music; in System Shock 1, these delayed signals playing against the original melody combined to create an entirely new melody, a key part of the musical composition. I love when sound design becomes an integral component of the compositional process, as opposed to an effect or an afterthought!
Exec’s guitar line playing eighth note line (pictured above):
Exec’s guitar line with delayed signal three sixteenth notes later:
I hope you found this somewhat technical discussion of System Shock 1's music interesting and informative! While rebooting System Shock’s soundtrack, the lessons taught by the original soundtrack are invaluable to capturing the essence of System Shock 1’s music. With such a forward-thinking musical score in the original game, we aim to keep that spirit alive by pushing the boundaries of interactive music and sound design today. The world of interactive music in video games has only grown more interesting in the past 20-odd years, and I’m very excited to utilize these options to compose the most immersive and interactive score for System Shock possible!
Introducing our new Nightdive Studios Shop!
Ever wish you could have a shirt with our awesome logo? Or how about our logo done by another artist? Well you asked for it and here it is! We now have a Nightdive Studios merchandise shop! For a limited time only, we will be offering a 10% discount with code SCUBASTEVE, please check it out:
If you are interested in any other games to back on Kickstarter, please consider Fort Triumph! Fort Triumph is a tactical RPG featuring interactive environments and epic quests in a world on the brink of destruction. It's basically a fantasy version of XCOM with environment physics. Pretty awesome!
5 months ago
– Thu, Apr 20, 2017 at 11:09:50 PM
It has been quite the month following up from GDC! At this time, everyone should be receiving their surveys from Backerkit. On Backerkit, you should be able to not only confirm your pledge, but also upgrade or add on more cool things. On the subject of surveys, we have created an additional one for you to check out to help us continue to develop this awesome title for you:
We are happy to share that our team here at Nightdive Studios is growing! Please welcome our new Lead Animator Lucas Carnes, Lead 3D Environment Artist James Garcia, and our new Lead Producer Kristina Tomalesky! Are you or someone you know wanting to join the team? We are hiring:
Mid/Senior Gameplay Programmer
Work closely with designers, artists, and other team members to create high quality features
Create or improve tools as necessary to support specific features/systems.
Continuously test, debug, profile, analyze, and optimize across all applicable platforms.
Contribute innovative and original ideas on all aspects of game production and development.
Mid/Senior Systems Designer
Work closely with programmers, artists, and other team members to create high quality features
Contribute innovative and original ideas on all aspects of game production and development.
Create thorough documentation for systems and features.
Participate in regular Vulcan mind melds with the Game Director.
Please stay tuned for more great upcoming updates~!
♡✧( ु•⌄• ) Karlee Meow~
Feedback Responses and BackerKit
7 months ago
– Tue, Mar 07, 2017 at 11:16:29 PM
More info on that video...
Hi everyone, Jason here. Last week, after seeing a lot of feedback regarding the video, I took to Discord and quickly wrote up a response to concerns I was seeing, and thanks to some loyal fans, it was reposted in various places. In case you missed it, here’s what I wrote:
So, the engine change and visual change are unrelated. Things would pretty much look the same in either engine, but the big difference is performance. The visuals are still a work in progress and know that I'm listening. What you see in the video is a rough style we are experimenting with to push crisper visuals. Art direction was a lower priority for the engine change since we wanted to be sure the technology could do what we needed first. Now that we have the pipelines set for getting art into the engine, we'll be iterating on the style and mood.
The other thing I heard was people were worried that the gameplay was becoming stripped down due to the simple combat shown in the video. Gameplay wasn't a priority for assessing the engine since, again, everything we've researched indicates Unreal can offer the same (if not better) foundation for the gameplay systems.
We're only 20% through our vertical slice, and there's still a lot to do. The next steps are getting interesting creature and environment behaviors, while also iterating on the hacking puzzles, cyberspace, weapons, and items. This is a big game, so we're trying to tackle these components in order, starting with a solid tech foundation and an effective the process for getting art into the game. For now, we chose to bring art in we could finish quickly so we can get the other departments (like design) testing their stuff in engine. More elaborate and iconic art is coming, but remember, for this early stage of v slice, it's about establishing a solid foundation to build upon.
Oh, another thing worth mentioning is that the UE4 video represents 1.5 months of direct content creation, whereas the unity demo had about 6 months. That was another reason for the switch, content took too long to get into unity. Not exactly the fault of Unity, but as you can see, it's easier for our team to create content in Unreal.
Q: Why UE4 instead of Unity?
Jason: Unity is a great engine, as is Unreal. When we started researching engines, Unreal ultimately was the best fit for the content we wanted to make. The team found we were able to get the content into the engine with the visual fidelity and target performance more easily. Basically, for our team and project, Unreal will enable us to be more efficient and aligns better with our goals. Another big draw was its console performance… which I’ll talk about below.
Q: Great, now you are making a console game with a PC port...
Jason: Whoa there! We never said that, and even if we didn’t switch engines, the game would still come out on consoles. Personally, I’m a PC gamer through and through (mainly because I can’t aim well with a controller). System Shock is being made for PC gamers first. It would be a shame if only PC folk could appreciate our game, so we’ll be bringing it to console as well, but PC is the main target for everything we do.
Q: What does “Faithful Reboot” mean? What are you changing from Shock 1?
Jason: When we started working on this game, we had a few choices. Initially we were planning on doing a straight 1:1 remake, but we soon realized this would be our opportunity to introduce the Shock universe to a new generation of gamers that might have missed the opportunity to appreciate Shock. After having numerous meetings with the original Shock 1 devs about the story, levels, etc, it became clear there were a lot of things they would have done differently.
Early in development, we started meeting with those former LGS guys and started asking the question “What would you do differently with today’s technology?” The answers were overwhelming. I think the funniest answer was “Less grenade types for sure”. At that point we realized this needed to be a reboot, but maintain the spirit of Shock 1. Whenever we look at the design, or art, or audio even, we ask ourselves “What would LGS do?”. The answer becomes clear after understanding LGS was about innovation, trying new things and bringing together concepts unheard of in games before them. We see ourselves as maintaining that tradition, and chat with the LGS guys to ensure what we’re doing holds up to their expectations. The mutant frozen shatter stuff is a good example of that.
So what’s different? We’re changing very little of the story other than refining the dialogue and plugging plot holes. Gameplay will be different, but more of an evolution of the original to get combat feeling more reactive and systems with an expected level of depth. Again, a lot of these changes come down to understanding what LGS would do if they were making Shock 1 anew today.
Levels will harken back to the original game thematically, but the layout will see a pretty big change to apply modern level design principles for pacing and exploration. We’re not going to dumb things down, but we also don’t want to ignore the last 20 years of progress level design has made.
Oh, another thing that we’re a big proponent of is to assume the player is intelligent, and not hold their hand every step of the way. We’ll start the game off teaching you the basics, but then you’ll be on your own to figure things out. A big part of the fun from classic games was figuring things out yourself, and we think that’s what most of you would prefer :-)
Q: Things look untextured and bland.
Jason: This was a VERY rapid pass on art stuff and is not final. There’s still a lot more work that will be going into art, as well as bringing in the more iconic nuances of Shock 1. We’ll post more updates on art once things are further along.
Q: Things now look like a generic scifi shooter
Jason: Keep in mind, this video doesn’t really show off the gameplay we’re going for. Combat is a thing you’ll do, but there will be LOTS of other options to take as you play. We know some players will walk to just run and smash a lot of faces, and they’ll be able to do that, but for the thinking player, they’ll have a diverse set of gameplay tools to tackle situations in hackery or stealthy ways. Without getting into too much detail, the station is essentially a living character, and the player can learn how to use aspects of the station to their advantage. I’ll be sure to share more about the gameplay systems as things get further solidified.
Q: Will there be any hud?
Jason: Definitely! Not sure what the HUD will look like currently, and we’re chewing on a few options. We probably won’t have a finalized HUD until the end of v slice or early in the production phase.
Q: Will you still be launching on Linux? Mac?
Jason: Yup! That goal has never changed. When we say “PC”, we mean Windows, OSX, and Linux.
Q: Do you plan on porting to Nintendo Switch?
Jason: Hard to say right now. It depends on what kind of demand there is for it.
Q: Are you planning to reboot SS2?
Jason: Oh boy, one game at a time. Let’s see how this game goes and then board that ship when we get to it ;-)
Q: Why does Shodan sound that way? (girly, smurf, distorted)
Jonathan: To disclose- I can’t speak to the intentions behind the processing, as thus far in the process Terri Brosius has provided her VO with her own processing. But I can speak from an audio direction standpoint, and how we felt that these lines fit in the context of the game…
Terri is unique in that she is SHODAN in a much deeper way than most voiceover artists are their characters. Back in the original Shock days, she wrote her own lines and directed herself. She knows SHODAN’s character better than just about anyone. As such, we have been directing her only as much as we need to and she gives her own take, given how close she is to the character of SHODAN.
From an audio direction standpoint, what I can say is that when we received the SHODAN lines for the latest video, we all got chills. My skin crawled, even hearing the voice outside of the context of the rest of the video elements, and that hit my mark. There are some subtle differences for sure, especially in the quality of the processing of the voice. However, none of these differences felt outside the bounds of what SHODAN is or could be. To speak specifically to her voice raising pitch, historically SHODAN’s voice has always modulated pitch, both low and high. There may be some new inflections that arise, but nothing that we feel is outside the bounds of what SHODAN means, both technically and emotionally.
Q: The music isn't "synthy" enough.
Jonathan: Both because of the history of System Shock and its importance as a sci-fi game, synthesizers are crucial part of its aural soundscape. Because of exactly this reason, when we began work on System Shock, I began accumulating external and analogue synthesizers, modular and otherwise, to build System Shock’s score. They’re my babies! :) Aside from the piano, the music in the trailer is about 90% built out of these synthesizers and processed guitar work. For the trailer, it’s pretty cinematic, so two things about that:
First, before working on this trailer there was a lot of internal discussion about what the goals of this trailer was and what we could best do to achieve these goals. The track that you are hearing are indicative of these goals - nothing more or less. A trailer is a different beast than a game is, and seeks to accomplish different things for a different audience.
Secondly, System Shock is a wide game from a gameplay perspective; just as there is exploration, combat, hacking, storytelling, and creepiness, there is music to match all of it. Some points may call for theme, some for spooky ambience, and some for punchy electronic music. Just like Jason has to do, we are all constantly asking ourselves “What would System Shock be if LGS was making it in 2017?” As such, there will be some necessary alterations that come from 20+ years of innovation and improvement. But if you’re open to a faithful modern interpretation that tries to capture the essence of what defined System Shock in its time, then maybe you’ll find some enjoyment from the more punchy electronic music found in combat in the game. :)
Q: Where is my Backerkit survey?
Karlee: We have currently been soft launching the surveys, and you should receive your survey within the next 48 hours if you haven’t yet already. If you need Backerkit support, please contact: