Activision and Troika Games are hard at work producing Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, which is a hybrid game that will include role-playing elements based on the tabletop game of the same name. However, the game is also being powered by Valve's Source engine--the same technology used in the upcoming shooter Half-Life 2. In this edition of our designer diaries, joint CEO Leonard Boyarsky discusses how the studio went about combining first-person shooter elements with role-playing elements.
Combining a Shooter and an RPG
Joint CEO, Troika Games/Producer
Egad, is it that time again already? Time for another Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines developer diary? Hmmm... Let's see here... I guess this time around we can talk about combining a first-person shooter and a role-playing game into one big slice of RPG heaven. Well, it's obvious that the first question I should tackle is: Why would we want to do such a thing in the first place?
In the past, it seemed that there weren't enough benefits to going to a first-person engine, considering the low polygon counts and extremely limited texture memory available at the time. As technology got better, the world of first-person gaming began to tempt us with its ability to immerse players so thoroughly. However, something was still missing. It wasn't until we ended up considering Valve's Source engine, which has powerful facial animation technology and versatile scripting capabilities, that we felt confident that we could create an RPG with all the immediacy of a shooter but without sacrificing any of the depth and story of a good Troika-style RPG.
When we started down this road, we knew we were facing a daunting task. One of our biggest concerns was how RPG-style statistics and ability scores would factor into the first-person experience. For instance, how would players react to their firearms skill dictating whether or not they hit an opponent? "I mean, hey, my crosshair was right on that guy, and I missed him!" This type of behavior is expected in an RPG, but the fact that the player is viewing the world from a first-person perspective tends to give rise to certain expected behaviors. After a lot of teeth-grinding, soul-searching, and just plain old testing and retesting, we've managed to come up with various solutions to the "feel" problem, as we like to call it.Without giving too much away, we've found that a lot of player feedback, coupled with an under-the-hood tweaking of the system, has resulted in a good overall combination of the RPG and shooter aspects of the game. I say "under-the-hood" because our goal is to make the game feel like a true-to-the-rules Vampire experience, though sometimes adhering slavishly to the actual pen-and-paper rules almost makes the game seem like it's no longer a faithful translation. We've encountered this issue a lot in making RPGs in the past--as I'm sure the makers of other RPG games have. The important thing is that players get a rewarding experience with the desired feel, and this means a certain amount of massaging the rules. If we've done our job right (which I feel we have, of course), both novices and seasoned players will have a satisfying experience playing Bloodlines.
On the other hand, something that took us totally by surprise in making this game has been the sheer volume of different characters needed to make our world feel alive. In a standard shooter, you've got maybe 10 to 20 different characters and monsters to model, texture, rig, and animate. We've got upward of 150! At last count, we had around 3,000 unique animations, and we're not done yet. Even in the area of boss monsters, we've exceeded our original expectations. We've got a good deal of unique boss monsters, each with its own set of animations. To push it even further, we've incorporated normal mapping into a lot of our bosses to add more detail (normal mapping is a bump mapping technique that makes models look like they're using a lot more polygons for details than they actually are). When we began this game, we realized that we'd have to populate a much bigger world than is normally seen in first-person games, but the sheer volume of what we're doing has certainly been an eye-opener, to say the least.
In addition to dealing with the "stats versus feel" dilemma--as well as the number of characters we expected to use versus what we ended up having to do--we also had to implement third-person melee combat. Since the Vampire system has both melee and brawl abilities, we wanted to give players a satisfying experience if they chose to go down these roads. The implementation of melee combat has been more challenging than we originally anticipated, but it has given the gameplay a whole other dimension to be explored. The most difficult aspect of melee combat has been the wide variety of weapons available to players and to other characters. Not only did we have to make all the animations work well in a melee-versus-melee situation, but we also had to make them feel right in a melee-versus-ranged encounter as well. In looking back over the topic of this diary, I realize that third-person melee may actually be the point where we merge the role-playing and first-person action with the third-person game. Perhaps we need to also start figuring out how to incorporate elements from top-down strategy games to make our genre-mixing complete (just kidding).
There are many integral things to this game that are foreign to the world of first-person shooters (including third-person melee combat, vampiric disciplines, and a rich, deep dialogue system), and our goal has been to combine them seamlessly with Valve's Source engine. But in the end, what we've really tried to do is take the best aspects of a shooter--the immediacy, the action, the pulse-pounding excitement--and add them to the world of RPGs. And I, of course, think we're well on our way to succeeding.