Debuging and Discovery

I spent most of the recent week debugging and fine-tuning the game. Nothing spectacular, just few touches here and there, addition of vibration feedback for gamepad, automatic control scheme detection, fixing some audio glitches, fine-tuning analog controls, adding ship-wide audio alarms for critical conditions and so on.

All that stuff was necessary, yet there is little to demonstrate in a video. The exciting part, however, is that I can now make a full gameplay trailer. And this is a point where I can add a story to the game. And if I’m going to have a story, why not learn from a master how to write one? I found this video course on writing science-fiction and fantasy by one of my favourite writers – Brandon Sanderson and buckled up for a lecture on writing fiction.

And boy, I was surprised.

I always felt it was a good idea to pick up some tricks from a writer. What I did not realize was that there is much more to learn than just how to write a story. Writing a book and small-scale game development have a lot of things in common, and I picked up way more tricks than I expected. On top of knowledge on writing actual story those lectures deal with learning curves, tone-setting, infodumps and many other things that are highly relevant in core gameplay.

Let me give a specific example:

Ever since the conception of ΔV i had this idea of opening scene of the game – the ring dive. I imagined a ship flying backwards, steadily decelerating with its main engine all the way to the ring, and re-orienting using visible thrusters just before giving the player controls. Here you can see an early draft:

I always knew that that’s a scene I absolutely need to have at the start, but I never consciously realized why. Brandon’s lecture showed me exactly why – that is my tonal promise. Just as opening chapter of a book shows the reader what the book will be about and what kind of storytelling to expect, I’m making a gameplay promise here: within first 20 seconds of pressing “new game” I’m showing that you have a ship that acts and moves as a real ship in space and there are asteroids to find to the right. Player should not be surprised by lack of friction, Newtonian movement and overall realistic theme of the game. Hopefully I’m also conveying that your way forward is to the right, and you will have return to the left.

Then comes a hopefully satisfactory fulfillment of that promise – you find that game models a lot of often overlooked elements of ship mechanics. Your engine exhaust will push rocks away and can melt small ones. Your mass driver has a substantial recoil you have compensate for. Laser is not visible in space – unless it hits some dust. Cargo significantly weights your ship down.

Those are all small details that I hope will evoke the “yes, that’s just as it should look like!” response from a player. A fulfillment of tonal promise.

And this is just a one aspect of the lecture that I took away. I sincerely recommend them for every indie game developer.

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