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A prequel to GDC...

GDC is this week and we'll be there. Well at least I will be ^_^;

I wanted to share a little of how the game has changed since you folks last saw it. One of the biggest changes is the multiplayer system. We started with a fairly basic system, package extraction. Pick up the item, take it to the extraction point. When we were brain storming among ourselves and our consultants we thought, real military operations are more like a series of objectives ie...

Grab a item

Move to extraction point

Hold the extraction point

Kill or snatch an HVT

You get the idea. Essentially a number of fairly basic games, strung together. So we did that. And to keep it interesting, we made it random.

We blocked out our levels into distinctive sets, each capable of hosting one of three game types within it. We call it intimate scale sandbox. The game is more organic, there's no spawn camping because the game type and locations are constantly changing. Teams earn money for every objective they complete. At the end of a "Contract", you're still playing s special operations contractor working for Exonational Consortiums, you take that money and are able to purchase new weapons, field tech and armor.

The thing here is, we think of weapons, armor and field tech as platforms, not off the shelf products. Think Vagrant Story meets Crysis, and you're on the right path :)

There's more surprises on the way. We'll talk more about everything at the show. See you then!

2007 epilogue - 2008 prologue

Hola Amigoes.

Last night Echelon celebrated being alive for a little more than a year. It's been a hell of a ride. The studio space is still open and we're actually paying our own rents. This in itself was cause for celebration honestly. No one ever talks about how they stay afloat making their dreams come true, do they?

We've been taking care of business on the BPRE side as well as taking on a number of contracting jobs ranging from web development and design to application development. We even have a site show casing some of our partners and work:

http://studio.echelon-software.com

None of this means we stopped work on BPRE. On the contrary, Echelon recently completed rev 2 of our gameplay demo. We've been sending out kits to various publishers, signing NDAs, getting feedback, etc. I'm going to be at GDC hopefully doing some live demos with potential partners and scouting new talent for the team.

Finally, we relaunched the BPRE website to show a little bit more of the back story and various corporations that will have a part in the course of the game. Enjoy.

http://www.blackpowderredearth.com/

Hopefully we'll be finally doing a preview of the social networking side of our title shortly. We wanted to hold off on showing it till we had really beat the hell out of it and polished it up. With any luck we'll show the updated gameplay shortly after that, but who knows honestly. You slave on something day after day with no end in sight and then suddenly you get the magic and you know, it's done. We've had a few of those epiphanies, with hopefully more to come

On a unrelated note 2007 was an interesting year for games wasn't it. I played a bunch of games...but pretty much all of them came out in the last 2 months of 07. Which meant I was blowing through them and going onto the next. Call of Duty 4(PC), Crysis(PC) and Front Mission(DS) were the stand outs for me. I was surprised to find that I loved Halo 3, I had not been a big fan of the previous two titles, but 3 was just the perfect blend of everything Bungie had worked on up until that point IMO.

There's a bunch of stuff I am looking forward to in 08. Most of it delayed from 07 ^_^;

Armored Core For Answer is the 3rd PS3 rtail title I plan on buying, followed probably by MGS4, Killzone 2, The Agency, Little Big Planet and maybe Army of Two (I am very curious about Ao2).If all goes according to plan my PS3 will not just be a blu-ray player like it was in 07 (not that I am complaining about blu-ray because I love the format ^_^)

Anyways, hopefully we'll meet again at GDC!

Been a While...

And we've been keeping very very busy ^_^;

Unfortunately we're not at a point where he have a lot to share because we're still engaging in a process of discovery on many new game design elements.

I will tell you a little about how the team has grown. We now have 2 additional mappers working part time on our title. We're investing a lot of time making "checker board" maps or rather maps that are game play only.

In our 90 day run for glory, we spent a lot of time building foundation and simply getting things up and running to conventional standards. From there and since then we've begun to tune. That goes for player and weapon behaviors, maps (one of our mapping techniques is to start with a real place and then begin to customize and combine, whatever best suits the game) and scoring.

Since then we've prototyped several new game types. I'm bursting to talk about it but we've gotta hold off a little while longer. Sorry ^_^;

We've also radically advanced how weapons and armor are customized. They are quite a bit different than when we started and they are moving in what seems to be a very interesting direction. We started with how real weapon platforms are configured and have worked backwards from there.

The armor system is far less developed but also headed down a similar path.

Another thing we've begun to explore are "smart bombs". Items that players can use that can reshape combat on the ground. We've been brain storming and prototyping a bunch of new ideas. Hopefully you'll see the fruits of our labors soon but probably not as soon as you folks would like. Because we are focused on urban and sprawl type enviros with dismounted forces, we're trying to create things that will have that same effect as when Quaid deploys a clone hologram in the middle of the gun fight at the end of Total Recall. Basically stuff that won't slow down the game but is high tech ^_^

On the art side, Phil and Byungu are working out art maps, creating materials and figuring out how to push the Unreal engine to it's true potential. We're also working with the animation/design company Production IG to provide our concept art. It's been educational and very exciting. Our stuff is moving in a more science fiction direction now, but it still feels "real". That's been very important for us.

We're starting to look like a hybrid of Blade Runner and Iraq. We think that's a good thing :)

Finally, the social/commercial network stuff (which we intentionally glossed over in the Gamespot series) is also coming together. We're (surprise, surprise) prototyping. We do a lot of that and man do we really miss Max ^o^ He was a force of nature when it came to getting stuff into the game. Then again since he's left I haven't lost a game so every mushroom cloud has a tritium lining ;-)

We'll talk more soon folks :)

Going black

Well the teaser is out. It didn't show off any gameplay but it got the feeling we wanted across ^_^

We got a lot of feedback, some of it good and some of it not so good. Par for the course ;-)

But that's going to be it for a while. The next time you see new BPRE stuff it will be in the form of actual game play footage.

With every day that passes we spend time trying to push the Unreal Engine harder. We're also continually improving the level. As we've said, coming out with the show has been both a blessing and curse. Stuff we wanted to do when we started turned out to be totally unworkable or not fun when implemented and other things turned out to be great.

Then there's RoninSVC, which is a whole other ball of wax ^o^

Someone asked me recently, if you had to sum up what you are shooting for, what would it be?

Easy. A FPS of Syndicate. Different environments, combat and story, but the same fundamental concept. Feel free to touch base with us here or in the forums. Take care,

j

Here it comes

Next Tuesday we'll be releasing the first official screens from BPRE and a short teaser piece.

Hope you enjoy it!

Oh and we got more shirts in! Stop by http://echelon-software.com and pick one up ^_^

j

Schedules

Effective Scheduling is all about prioritization.  When thinking about feature priority I initially assign features into buckets using the MoSCoW method:
  • M - MUST have this.
  • S - SHOULD have this if at all possible.
  • C - COULD have this if it does not affect anything else.
  • W - WON'T have this time but WOULD like in the future.

This is a good technique to focus on what's most important first for the user: The MUST Haves.

If you don't do this type of prioritization/triage continuously, there will be the tendency to see all the features that you are aware of as important, and you will become drawn toward Big Design Up Front (BDUF).  In BDUF, you plan out every detail of the project before you begin implementation, with a detailed specification document to guide you every step along the way.

There is a fundamental issue with BDUF, which is that it presumes that you know everything that you will need to implement for the project before you actually do it.  In reality, there are always unknowns in a project, and you will become aware of those as you progress, and those unknowns will significantly affect your schedule in ways you could not have anticipated prior to knowing about them.

It's very easy to get lulled in to a false sense of security when you put down a list of features and you think you have captured the full scope of what you need to achieve. "Hurray, we have a plan, the plan will save us!"


To counter this, I try to practice lucid ignorance, being consciously aware of "Knowing what I don't know" in the project. This practice combined with implementing the Must Have features first, will help ensure that what I'm developing at any given point in the project will bring the most value to the user and that the value will increase over time maximally.

Ultimately, it's about giving the user the features they want most as early as possible.

In my next post I'll talk about estimation.

--Altay

Post Mortem

Now What?!

So our demo is in the can. What now. There are three things that need to happen.

1. Put together a collection of "pitch documents" that can be sent to the various game publishers.

2. Do some research and find out who is publishing your kind of game (in our case we met a lot of folks at GDC)

3. Get the buzz brewing.

I'll go through these one at a time.

The Pitch

I've had the benefit of writing a ton of these in my day from everything between ad agencies making a website and a TV sheries being pitched to HBO. The main purpose of these is to succinctly capture what your project is, who your team is and convince the people on the receiving end that you will actually deliver a product if they invest in you. Games are a high risk business. Hell entertainment properties in general are a high risk business! Showing that you've completed projects and have a history of delivering profitable projects will go a long way towards giving someone an iota of confidence that you will be able to deliver on your product. I experienced this in a huge way when I was working in the broadcast/cable animation industry.

Another thing that's invaluable to create is an elevator pitch. A one sentence description that encapsulates your idea at a very high level. Don't delude yourself and think "my project is too complex for such a simple wrapper." It's not, or worse if it is...you need to do some more thinking about what it is you are trying to make.

Possibly the most important thing you need to consider is what it will really take to make your vision a reality. We are in the process of creating a schedule/budget doc and figuring out how many people over how long to produce our title on a realistic time line for a realistic cost --aka one where both the publisher and us make money-- while still insuring a high level of quality. These are hard choices. The pie in the sky versus what you can fit in your mouth in one bite. Essentially create a list of your must have features and then prioritize. What is the thing you need first. What will impact the game most. What are the high risk items. Miles to go and promises to keep and all that :-P

A great document outlining the basics of what you need to get you started can be found here: http://www.igda.org/biz/submission_guide.php

If you haven't registered, it's worth doing, especially if you have an interest in pursuing this stuff as a career.

The final docs we send will be in digital format along with our demo. If a publisher likes what they see and invites us to their offices, we will bring the latest demo (we keep adding detail everyday) and a printed version of the pitch that can be left behind.

Market Research

As PC game developers (for the time being anyways) we needed to see who is actually making games in this space!

There are few "big" companies focused on the PC at the moment but there are still lots of options.

Since we were developing on the Unreal Engine 3 platform, it was also important to see who was licensing the engine. Many companies simply purchase company wide licenses rather than individual ones. We kept our eyes open, followed the news and checked with Epic Megagames to see who was acquiring these licenses.

The point is, your money and time are valuable. Don't waste them sending a pitch for a PC FPS to a company that makes Dating Sims :-P

Buzz Saw

Ahh the buzz. Actually I am generally in favor of staying in stealth mode until you absolutely have to show your wares but being as we already started this one in the public eye, we are going to continue this tack.

Prior to hitting a publisher, we contacted a PR agency to assist us with a press release. The press release will include screen shots(the first), some info about the title and possibly a teaser clip (which we are actually working on now).

Sadly, this is something you really need to hire someone to do (unless of course you have a contact database with over 1000 names in it ^_^;). We opted to work with Michael Meyers Public Relations. We met Michael at E3 and he was a pretty good guy. He also has a history in the gaming industry going back in time to the early days of EA.

Currently we are working on a short teaser piece and, surprise surprise, polishing our level to a place where we are comfortable making some screen shots. Actually we got there about 2 weeks ago, we're just using every moment we have to keep advancing the cause.

Everything takes twice as long as you expect!

Despite our years of experience, we still are amazed continually on how long it takes to do things. Finding an office, signing a contract, making a schedule, polishing that little bit of geometry to get it just right...etc. Everything takes time.

Shirts

Are shipping this week. Thanks so much to everyone who ordered one. There was a last minute delay with the printing that has been corrected! Hopefully everyone should be getting stuff no later than next week!

Other fun

We continue to work like crazy adding stuff to the game but there is so much to do ^_^;

We'll be posting a lesson on texture mapping for next gen on MySpace/YouTube later this week. We were going to do it last week but time has precluded us from dumping the tape to digital format. Thanks to Michelle, web master of our myspace page :-D

Talk to you folks soon.

Hata la Vista

So by now, you've most likely seen the end of "season 1" of IndieVelopment. It's been a fun ride. The show went from being a one shot traditional film, to a weekly 5 minute show to a weekly 20-30 minute show.

We were able to produce a functional demo in less than 90 days with quite a few features (some of which were omitted on the show due to time constraints and some were cut because we didn't want to talk about the features until they go out there). In fact, come to think of it we never even covered all the weapon and armor customization or the entire economic system within the game because it wasn't glued into the game till 2 days ago! Whoops ^_^;

It's important to realize what was shown in the last episode didn't cover the last week of polish. All that sex appeal you see in Gears and Rainbow Vegas is starting to show up. We're obviously not to that level of polish after 90 days, but Gears took more than 20 people more than 2 years.

We're going to be releasing the first "official screenshots" of BPRE in the next few weeks. These will have finished or/near finished characters and environments with lighting, bloom, etc. because honestly, those were the very last things we did. All the video walk throughs were done with canned animation that was not even close to being finished. We're still tuning the walk/run speeds in the game so there's no point to even try to polish those elements til we have that stuff "correct".

Making software is an iterative process and while having shipped several games and interactive products before, this was our first commercial FPS and we learned quite a lot.

One thing I'll share with you right now is the process of making diffuse, specular and normal maps and materials is much more complex now than ever before and if you are planning on making a mod that has next gen quality...start now. Just start making 2048 x 2048 material samples and work those normal and specular maps! At GDC we saw a presentation by the folks at Crytek about next gen level texturing and they are doing this exactly. Capturing live data and then tuning the textures before they even get to applying it to polygons.

If you're on a budget, like we were, check out a program called Crazy Bump. It's a little app that takes files and can produce normal maps from them. It's a free download, currently in beta and we got some great results with it.

Software wise, nothing beats Maya. There, I said it. We love the program, hands down the best for what we were doing. That being said there are a lot of new modeling packages out there that handle the organic stuff very nicely and if you have time to make a 5 billion poly model to create your normal maps, those might be the way to go. But with only 90 days and targeting around 10-15k triangles we could not beat Maya. In fact we're already working on tools for it that will give us a faster pipe into Unreal.

When it comes to texturing your levels, checkerboards are fine. They sure aren't pretty but they can do for a long while. Resist the urge to start throwing geometry and textures in until you have a solid map to start with. Your artists can be making raw materials in tangent so that when it's go time, they are ready and can put stuff together much faster.

Unreal Engine 3 has some amazing tools for determining texture density, lighting complexity, etc. When making texture maps, lay out your UVs and just import them into the game without any true texture and you'll still be able to see if you need more/less resolution.

Also, for portable hardware, the Dell XPS laptop with the nVidia card in it was unbeatable. It ran as fast as any of our dual core Intel/AMD desktop machines which were running everything from a 6800 and up. If we ever go into board room to do a demo, this is what we're going with. 

We also ran into some difficulty rendering some of our original architecture designs. We had to revise things quite a bit to make them work.

Lastly, we decided we needed to sci-fi up the character a bit more. The conventional gear wasn't selling the character we wanted enough. But you can never know that stuff until you've had it in there and played with it. We have an internal decision for no super suits...aka no Crysis or Halo type armor. We realized this about a month ago and have been cranking on it ever since. None of that art has been shown yet.

Regardless, it's been a fun ride.

We're going to be updating our MySpace page every week or so(hopefully) and you'll be able to see further developments there. We'll talk about the entire pitch process and hopefully we can keep sharing what we learn with you folks as we go.

So for now, it's adios.

BPRE on Myspace

Buy a shirt here

j

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