Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines Designer Diary #3

Troika Games' joint CEO Leonard Boyarsky discusses Vampire's use of the Source engine--the same technology that will power Half-Life 2.

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Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines will be an unusual first-person role-playing game. That means that although it will have features you'd expect from a role-playing game, like item inventories, an interesting story, and character development, the game will also let you play from a first-person perspective. In fact, the game will even let you pick up a number of firearms and play the game like you would a first-person shooter, blasting any enemies unfortunate enough to get in your sights. Then again, assault rifles are an inelegant way to deal with your foes if you're a vampire that possesses powerful innate abilities, as you will be in Troika and Activision's upcoming game, which is based on the tabletop role-playing game of the same name. As joint CEO Leonard Boyarsky explains in this third designer diary, making such an unusual game requires unusual technology--none other than the Source engine, the same technology that will power the highly anticipated shooter Half-Life 2.

Right From the Source

Leonard Boyarsky
Joint CEO, Troika Games/Producer

So one day I get this call from Scott Lynch over at Valve asking, "Do you guys want to come check out the Half-Life 2 Source engine?" Hmmm...let me think about this for a second. "Of course! Is today too soon?" So Jason Anderson (joint CEO at Troika) and I packed up and made off to Seattle to see the latest in 3D engines.

At Troika, we knew we were going to go full 3D on our next game; we just didn't know what type of engine we wanted to use. We didn't know whether we wanted to go with a first- or a third-person perspective, and we didn't know if we should license an existing engine or try to build a new one from off-the-shelf parts. These were the types of questions we had in mind when we went to look at Valve's Source engine. After getting our first look at the facial animation, the physics, and the overall beauty of Valve's Source engine, we were convinced that this was the game engine we really wanted to use to make the first Troika first-person RPG.

You might ask, "Why a first-person RPG?" Well, after seeing Valve's Source engine in action, we felt there was no better way to really immerse players in the experience than to make it a first-person game. Not to mention that a lot of us here were big fans of Ultima Underworld, and this seemed like a chance to revisit the roots of today's RPGs.

Once we had decided on using Valve's Source engine, the possibilities for what we could do really began to become apparent, as did the size of our task. If we were going to use this groundbreaking technology, we'd better be doing something amazing with it. Then Activision came into the picture with the Vampire: The Masquerade license...and we knew where we wanted to go.

Not all vampires are subtle.
Not all vampires are subtle.

The first thing that we wanted to explore with Valve's Source engine was the facial animation capabilities. The Source technology has an amazing tool called "faceposer" that we use to do all of our lip-synching and facial animations. With this tool, we can customize our characters with expressions, facial animations, and even gestures. We were blown away by the level of reality that this brought to our interactions with computer-controlled non-player characters (NPCs), as were the people we showed it to at last year's E3. No more using text to describe what an NPC is doing! Combining this level of animation and interactivity with voice-over really helped bring out the individual personalities of the NPCs. As you can probably imagine, this was also fairly liberating.

However, it was also a somewhat daunting proposition--every one of our NPCs was going to need to have recorded dialogue. This actually helped us define our characters through their voices much more quickly than we would have otherwise. We needed to be precise and focused in our dialogue choices, which has helped us become better writers, in my opinion.

Another aspect of Valve's Source engine that really drew us in was the way it handles physics. The addition of realistic physics into our game has opened up some interesting possibilities, from falling towers to monsters hurling corpses at players. We can have people crumple into formless heaps when they die, as opposed to cycling through canned death animations.

The use of physically modeled objects in the world also means that our NPCs can use parts of the environment, such as the aforementioned monster that hurls corpses at you. Believe me, there's nothing like facing off against some hideous monstrosity that all of a sudden flings the bloody corpse of a security guard at you. In this instance, we were also able to have the creature interact with the environment further by having it knock over barrels, I beams, and other objects to enable players to get into places where they are safely out of reach. This monster interaction also brought to the forefront the power of the engine to portray detailed, realistic characters. The amount of detail we are able to bring to our characters and the environments because of the power of Valve's Source engine is truly remarkable. When players are walking down the streets of the major cities in our game, it actually feels like a city block with signs and telephone poles, rather than just another level in a computer game.

The Source engine allows for complex facial animation.
The Source engine allows for complex facial animation.

Additionally, with all the bases covered in rendering, physics, networking, and animation with Valve's Source engine, we were able to spend some time writing fun new and distinctive features to fit the World of Darkness campaign setting [in which the Vampire tabletop game is based]. First, we needed to implement a moodier lighting system that would handle the stark contrasts of nighttime scenes, as well as brightly lit indoor scenes. We also implemented our own particle system that allows our animators and artists to be in direct control of the incredible special effects that are shown whenever your character uses vampiric powers. Additionally, we've added our own cloth system to the engine, because every well-dressed vampire needs to have a flowing cloak. Lastly, we've had to incorporate all those things that players need to be able to do in a role-playing game that aren't always standard in a first-person shooter, such as sneaking, a complex dialogue system, and, in our case, the whole system of vampire disciplines--the special powers that players will derive by joining one of many powerful vampire clans--available for them to use.

All in all, using Valve's Source engine has been a fantastic, eye-opening experience for all of us here at Troika. I think the greatest thing about it is watching the programmers' faces when they discover something new about the engine every day.

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