Lore: Aftermath and Developing for InstantAction
by Deborah M. Fike · 03/04/2009 (11:02 am) · 16 comments
Max Gaming Technologies is no stranger to GarageGames. With games Kachinko and Lore: Invasion in our store, they have been long-time supporters of Torque since its early days. In more recent news, Adrian Wright and Logan Foster have been blogging about the sequel to their first Mech Simulator game, Lore: Aftermath, for quite some time now. I had a chance to talk to Logan about what it was like developing Lore: Aftermath for InstantAction and thought you might enjoy his responses. Read on to hear how a team has learned from their early development experiences.
Lore: Aftermath is the return of the classic Mech Simulator game, where you pilot a massive 50 foot tall Mech.
What makes Lore: Aftermath unique?One of the things that we think people are going like and find unique about Lore: Aftermath is its classic mech combat and gameplay, which we really haven't seen on the market in years. It's not just some guy with a gun blitzing around the mission, bunny hopping and shooting everything in sight. We are talking about massive weapons of war unleashing hell onto its targets. Taking this all a step further, you do more than just choose a bunch of preconfigured player classes - a Mechanized Assault Vehicle (MAV) can be customized by the player to suit their style of play, down to their base chassis, weapons, engines and armor. Then to top all of this customization off, we allow the player to apply various decals and paint their MAV a custom color they have chosen, thus giving the player a true sense of ownership and uniqueness to who they are on the battlefield.
Where did your inspiration come from?Max Gaming was originally founded back in 1998 by Adrian Wright to run leagues for Mechwarrior gamers. Pretty much everyone at the company is a fan in one way or another of big giant robots, so it's pretty obvious why one of our niches would be making Mech-based games. In fact, Lore: Aftermath is essentially a sequel, of sorts, to the very first game that we ever did as an indie team called Lore: Invasion. Invasion wasn't a horrible game, but since it was our very first game, there were a lot of things that we liked from a concept standpoint that we never really felt we nailed 100%. So when it came time to make Lore: Aftermath, we pulled what we felt was good from Invasion, redid everything from the ground up, and then loaded it with a ton of other awesome things that we felt would make it a bigger and better Mech game.
Pretty much everyone at Max Gaming is a fan of big giant robots.
What was your development process like?I am not aware of us actually having any sort of particular method that we worked from. For the most part it was free-for-all. We didn't have a big 200+ page design document; we just came into it all with a simple two-page concept. From there we took a bit of time to review Lore: Invasion and a few other mech games to get an overall idea of what type of game we thought the market would enjoy.
After that we spent a lot of time just thinking about the core elements of the game. A lot of our initial efforts were put towards the MAV - how it would look, how it should operate and move, how many weapons and equipment it should hold and how to customize it. From there we moved onto some rapid prototyping with some quick and dirty sample models and a mission. Prototyping ensured that we maximized the time we spent on making the game fun to play, as opposed to what a lot of indie teams will do - producing a lot of cool-looking content and then trying to make it all fit together like a 5000-piece puzzle with no reference picture (which I should note was the route we had gone down with Lore: Invasion. We have since learned our lesson).
The blue mechs and chromatic colored box guns were amongst the first mech prototypes.
What was your game team like?Lore: Aftermath was developed primarily from December 2007 to roughly May 2008. The team was actually relatively small, just five guys (Adrian Wright, Tim Newell, Matt Mitman and myself) and our summer intern (Devin). Tim, Adrian and Devin are based out of our offices in Ohio. Matt works remotely from his home in North Carolina. I work remotely out of my home in Alberta, Canada.
To help communicate and keep ourselves organized, we used a lot of Skype and IRC to stay in contact. I am sure we are probably classified as Skype abusers. We will connect in the morning and leave the Skype chat going all day long. Other programs that we use to work together and collaborate include Google Talk and Google Docs, and we have our own bug tracking and SVN servers setup that we utilize daily to stay on top of things.
Most of our initial design work was done collaborating in Google Docs, talking about how things would work and technical limitations we would have to overcome. As we progressed into the game's development, we slowly moved to utilizing our bug tracker more and more to not just track issues, but to track tweaks and ideas to make the game better. This all helped us keep track of what we should do day to day.
Why did you use Torque to create the game?First and foremost is what the engine offers you. Torque has a great price point, which makes it pretty easy for even a hobbyist to get into and start working with it. It also includes all the source code (vitally important), a robust set of features and a pretty soft set of publishing restrictions. All of these are major wins.
The second reason is that Max Gaming has been using Torque-based products to make games since TGE was first released. We have developed and shipped over 10 titles for ourselves or various clients with it, and as such we felt that we had a pretty solid understanding of the engine. While we did for a small time consider using another engine, GarageGames gave us some special advanced access to what became TGEA 1.8, which helped tip the scale. Using an engine you are familiar with is very important when you are on a limited budget, and when that engine can give you access to almost all of the features you need right out of the box, that's even better.
Max Gaming has been using Torque to create games for almost a decade.
What were a few major development challenges you encountered?There were definitely a few challenges with regards to developing Lore: Aftermath. I will try to list some of the more significant/important ones:
- Working with a prototype game engine. When we first started to work on Lore: Aftermath, we began with an early version of what would become Torque Game Engine Advanced. Now I am sure there are some indie developers out there who are thinking "Oh hell ya, I wish I could get the early alpha/beta releases of these engines." While the changes to the engine were fantastic to say the least, it was frustrating at times to send and receive bugs and bug fixes when all you wanted to do was make a game. Luckily Clark Fagot and his team at GarageGames did a great job at providing us (and other teams making IA games) with new weekly builds and provided us with a fantastic support line.
- Textures... PNG, DDS and JNG. One of the first big mistakes we ran into in one of our very first builds was that some of our PCs had some really poor framerates while others didn't. As it turns out, using PNG and JPG textures like we normally would in the original Torque engine caused us to use too much VRAM, and as such we ended up constantly swapping data in and out, causing performance degradation. Once we found out what was going on, we went with DDS based textures because they stay compressed in VRAM as well as throw in more fallback-like options to degrade on the games graphic options for cards with less than 256mb of onboard memory.
- Weapon trails. We were pretty familiar with using particles for all the weapon trail effects. The only downfall of this is that you need a lot of particles for it to look good and for some weapons it will just never look good. Luckily Joe Maruschak at GarageGames suggested that we implement Ribbon code into our game and use it for our weapon projectiles effects (like they do with Legions). We did and in the very first test of it all of our jaws dropped to see how incredibly awesome it was.
- Distribution size. Once we had the game pretty much zeroed in, we began to send out test builds to a group of private beta testers that we had collected. Unfortunately the builds were a good 140mb in size, which isn't great for an e-distribution game. While there were some texture optimizations we could do such as using DTX1C instead of DTX5 compression for DDSs that had no alpha channel data, the biggest culprit for this file size were the textures for the MAVs. We had 8 different colored textures for each MAV (2x for torso and lower body) which took up probably a good 1/3 of that space! Our solution was to come up with a "Hue Shader" which would blend in color onto a single bitmap based on a 8-bit image that we provided to control the per-pixel amount of the blending. This ended up cutting about 50mb off of our download size and had the added bonus of giving the players an option to have custom colors.
- Making a better Lore. It should be noted that when we started this project, many were expecting Lore: Invasion with shaders and bigger MAVs. But we didn't just want to deliver a rehash of a game that we knew we could do infinitely better if we redid it all from scratch. After all we not only wanted to make a great game, but we really wanted to show everyone that we were a pretty dammed good development team. Max Gaming put in a lot of additional resources on our own, exceeding the investment GarageGames put into the project, to ensure we delivered a top notch product that players would really enjoy.
The Max Gaming development team wanted to do more than just create Lore: Invasion with shaders and bigger MAVs.
How did you accomplish QA and beta testing?We did a lot of the early testing ourselves, usually by hosting a game against ourselves every few days. In April 2008 we opened up the game to a private group of testers, many of whom were from existing mech communities or fans of our first Lore game. They have been testing it since then via a weekly testing regiment that we use to organize their efforts. We provide them with new builds, we all play it together, chat on IRC afterwards (you can find us on #lore_aftermath on quakenet IRC), compare notes and list issues or concerns on a private beta forum we set up.
When the game was released on InstantAction in November of 2008 for testing, we moved all our testing there. We were able to tap into an even larger group of players who have continued to provide us with awesome feedback so that we can further tweak the game and optimize the gameplay experience. We read every post that players make for suggestions and feedback and spend at least an hour or two every day discussing the pros and cons of each suggestion. This has allowed us to roll in more features and demands that the players want, allowing us to give a much richer game experience with each new release.
What was it like publishing a game on InstantAction?Publishing on InstantAction is very different than publishing through a traditional publisher. IA is not a portal where you dump your game to the masses and then walk away. It's a living community and development environment. As such we feel that it's a symbiotic relationship we need to foster and continue. As IA gets larger, more people play Lore, those people who play Lore give us feedback and buy our items, and in return we continue to develop Lore Aftermath and make it bigger and better. This then attracts new players to IA and the cycle repeats. Yes, you read that right - as long as you guys support Lore: Aftermath we will continue to develop and publish new content for it!
On the flip side of things, you have great developer interaction with IA. The IA team is very active in communicating with us. For example we meet weekly with Sam at GarageGames to discuss the game. We chat with James and the web team constantly to provide them with new information, run contests, etc. Stephen keeps us in the loop with what's going on behind the scenes. Daniel and his team are letting us know what changes are in store for the site and how we can best integrate. Most importantly there is a live test environment that we can upload builds to beat on, which ensures that we don't accidentally slip into some major issue.
All in all it's a pretty great service to work with.
Live development on InstantAction makes it easy for the development team to get real-time feedback and quickly implement new features.
What can we expect to see next from Max Gaming?Of course, we are still working on making Lore: Aftermath bigger and better via your feedback. We are working on a few contract projects, including an update to the award winning educational game Evolver (which we co-developed with 21-6 Productions). We are also taking the opportunity to work on a few other game ideas such as enhancing our Dark Horizons space flight sim demo that we did for the Green Ear contest (which I might add that we won). And finally, on the iPhone front, we are working to release Kachinko on that platform very soon.
Thanks again for reading. If you're interested in these types of blogs, check out GarageGames' Dev Interview series, and happy game development!