Thursday, 21 August 2014

People of Frictional: Samuel Justice

Who Am I?

My name is Samuel Justice. I became audio lead here at Frictional Games in February of this year. However, I’ve been directly and indirectly involved with the studio for 3 years. I work from home in a place called Worthing in England - a small seaside town that’s fairly sleepy.

Background

When I was about 10 or 11 I started to get almost unhealthily obsessed with videogames; this carried on throughout my teens. My mother played piano and my father the bass guitar and both enjoyed listening to a lot of music, so I was always surrounded by that as well. 

During high school the obsession with games shifted from playing them to developing them. I would sit and help make Half Life 2 mods and levels whilst watching whatever documentaries I could find about game makers. This became my own little escape. When I left school I went to college to do standard A-levels. College in the UK is unlike the USA - in the UK you can finish high school at 16 and study for 2 years at college, then move on to university. I hated what I was doing and after 5 weeks dropped out and joined a music production course, as I had no idea what I wanted to do longer term. It was during that course that I developed a passion for audio production and sound. And then it clicked! The obsession I had with making games and sound finally could cross paths, and I began to venture into sound design for games.

So during the nights and evenings I experimented, plugging sounds into these mods and seeing what my experiments produced. I joined a few modding teams during this time (Off-Limits, Nuclear Dawn and Iron Grip The Oppression being just a few that I helped sound design). I got really lucky and landed a small contract out of college through my mod links which sustained me for a year. After which I had no money left and saw vacancies in the police - the pay was okay and I saw it as a way to continue doing what I loved on the side and it was great because I was able to afford audio equipment with the pay as well! Not much, mind you.

I continued working in the police for a few years but never fully embraced it - it had never been an ambition of mine. About two years in I started to enjoy it more, and began to think that maybe the police was my calling after all. But I was wrong.

A source modder got in touch and asked if I'd do audio for a title of his. I worked on that, and then the next title, and suddenly I was springboarding from one title to another. 3 months later I made the choice to leave the police: as this was what I was so desperate to do that I wanted to grasp the opportunity!

This led me to finding myself being audio lead on Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and working with Frictional for the first time. I then joined the fantastic audio team at DICE in Sweden and worked on Battlefield 4 and a number of its expansions. After 18 months at DICE I was feeling quite homesick so I decided to return to the UK. Jens had taken the reigns of maintaining Frictional Games as a company, and there was a gap that needed to be filled. I jumped on board knowing that SOMA was an extremely unique title and something that’s going to be quite special. I’d been working on SOMA in the background during my work on A Machine for Pigs. So even though I have only joined the studio full time recently, I have been involved in the title from the early stages.
And that brings me to today... here...  typing this post to you guys.

Life at Frictional

What does an audio lead do on a daily basis at Frictional Games, I hear you ask? No? Well, tough, I’ll tell you anyway.

The bulk of my time is working directly on SOMA and making sure we can deliver the best-sounding game available within the timeframe. But I also manage the small band of Frictional Audio compadres. We have one sound designer (the great and mysterious Tapio Liukkonen), an intern/junior sound designer who goes by the name of Mike Benzie and composer Mikko Tarmia who are all working extremely hard to make sure SOMA sounds great. 

So my time is also split managing their workloads, giving feedback, listening to their feedback and ideas and keeping the lines of communication wide open which is vital when working for a virtual studio.

Once those duties are taken care of I love to get my hands dirty and dive right in and create and implement sound for the game. To a lot of people sound design is a dark art - they understand the process of pointing a microphone at something. But how does it go from that raw recording to a big sound effect... and then how does that get in to the game?

The best analogy for creating a sound is to compare it to cooking - in-game sounds aren’t made from single source sounds, but instead mixed from multiple sources. We’ve created the SOMA sound library at Frictional which contains a large number of custom recordings for us to use as our ingredients.

So, when you have a library of ingredients, the second phase is to think and to ask questions. You need to gather an understanding of the sound you want to make. What kind of environment is it in? What kind of story do I want to tell with this sound? What other sounds does it effect?

Once this is done, the next stage is one of the most important - just listening to the source material. We use a program here called Basehead that is our SFX database and auditioner, for this we can type in (like Google) the kind of sound we want, and it’ll search the SOMA sound library and give us results (we also have to name the files, which makes it vitally important that they are named correctly and comprehensively). This is the “picking ingredients” stage. Once I’ve selected a few sounds that I think are interesting and which could convey the story I want to tell, I’ll drop them into my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). I use a program called Nuendo - there are a lot out there (ProTools, Cubase, Logic, Fruity Loops etc. etc.)  and they all do the same basic thing. Using Nuendo I then manipulate each ingredient until I have something that resembles the sound in my head.
A typical SFX session, each coloured block is a different recording!
Now how do we get this in game? I’m sure many of you reading this are aware that Frictional has a proprietary engine and toolset called HPL (version 3 is being used for SOMA). However the audio side is handled by third-party software called FMOD. HPL and FMOD talk to each other and FMOD provides the toolset to import the sound and attach parameters to it (such as volume, how far away the player should hear it, should it have in game echo etc.). Once this is done, FMOD encodes and generates a file that HPL is then able to read - and we trigger the sound from that file using the scripting system in HPL. Thanks to the fact that HPL updates script on the fly, it makes it very easy to tweak a sound in Nuendo, drop it into FMOD and test it in the game without having to restart anything. Workflow chain is absolutely the most important part when it comes to implementation - otherwise it can take hours just to test a single sound.
This image shows the logic within FMOD for underwater movement sound - this is just one type of movement on one surface!
So there we have it! Now leave me alone: I need to go away and make sounds that will contribute towards a national diaper shortage.


Thursday, 14 August 2014

People of Frictional: Peter Wester

Twelfth post in the series. You can read the other posts here.

Who Am I?

I'm Peter Wester and I have been an Engine Programmer here at Frictional Games since late 2011.
I work from my apartment in Stockholm, Sweden. I used to have a nice big desk, but after getting a PS4 Devkit it has become cramped.

Background


My gaming interest started as a kid when my parents bought a Sega Megadrive and I became obsessed with Sonic the Hedgehog.

On my 12th birthday I got a program called Multimedia Fusion. It was a 2D game maker that didn't need any coding knowledge. Instead you placed objects on a canvas and gave them existing behaviors to get them to move or collide. I used this to try and recreate my favorite 2D games. The most memorable one was a GTA clone with the goal of killing as many civilians as possible before the timer was up.

This got me interested in how games were made and I started to look for tools to modify other games. Me and my friend would replace all the voice acting in Worms with our own recordings or make custom maps for Counter-Strike.

It wasn't until high school that I got into programming. After taking a programming course and learning basic C++ I downloaded the Doom 3 SDK and tried to understand the code; eventually I started helping out on a few overly ambitious mods that never got close to being released.

After high school I applied to a game development education at Stockholm's University. It didn't turn out to be the best education, but I met a lot of people and started making games from scratch. Three years later me and three of my friends dropped out and started a game company.

Phoenix Spirit - Our second game
We made games for Android and iOS and I was in charge of game design and programming. After releasing two games we got the chance to go to China and meet up with a contact and start a subsidiary there. We made some money and got a few awards but after two years we decided to shut down the company to focus on other things.

Mana Chronicles - Made by our Chinese subsidiary

I started looking for a job and saw a blog post about Frictional hiring an engine programmer. Knowing that Frictional had their own engine and that I wanted to focus on programming I decided to apply.

What do I do?


As an Engine Programmer I take care of the code that makes up the foundation of the game. The game is built on top of this. We've separated the engine and game code; this means that the engine can be used for multiple different games. In fact, most of the engine code used for Amnesia: The Dark Descent is still in HPL3 (our latest engine version) and could run the game with a few tweaks.

What an engine needs to provide is different for each title. For instance, SOMA requires a way to simulate physics, to render a believable 3D world, to play sound effects and to support fast iteration of level creation. My job is to make sure all those exist and work as they should.

An Engine Programmer's job can be broken down to two basic parts: adding features, and supporting existing features. Adding a new feature takes about 1-2 months and goes something like this:

When I added Depth of Field to the engine I started out by researching the subject. I read up on tech blogs and research papers to find the best implementations of Depth of Field. I decided to try out two versions, an expensive bokeh version and a more standard blur based one. After implementing both and getting feedback I decided to go with the blur based version since it was cheaper and fit with our underwater aesthetic. Once completed I added script functions and made a helper class so that the gameplay programmers could add it where it was needed.
Depth of Field - blur visible in the background

Some tech features also need to work in the editor. When I'm done with such a feature I hand it over to Luis who later adds it to the editor in a user-friendly way.

The closer a project gets to the end, more of my time gets spent on supporting and improving the code. This could mean fixing bugs that have been reported or optimizing code to make the game run faster.
I'll test the game on different hardware and make sure it runs as fast as it should. If it doesn't I'll try and figure out what's causing the game to be slow and then find a solution to that problem.


Friday, 27 June 2014

Editor Fly Mode

Hey there! Vacation time is really close now and there's so much to do before it arrives, but I still wanted to drop by and keep you posted on new editor stuff, so I'm gonna keep it short this time.

We have a fly mode for the perspective camera now! Yes, and it works nicely enough. No video today, but enjoy this animated GIF instead:



Monday, 23 June 2014

People of Frictional: Steven Redmond

Eleventh post in the series. You can read the other posts here.

Who Am I?

I'm Steve, another newcomer to the ranks of Frictional Games from the foggy British Isles. I joined around the same time as Ian give or take a few weeks and, like both Ian and Patrik, am responsible for level and gameplay scripting. 

I'm originally from London, having moved out five years ago and settled in a small village in the Midlands. I'm married and have two daughters who I have to keep out of my room for at least 8 hours a day. So essentially, as an adult about to hit 30, my days involve sitting in a corner of my bedroom on the PC playing with editors and programming languages while trying to keep the family out. Life has a funny habit of coming full circle sometimes!

But before we get on to that, here's the photo of my workspace:
Until recently I had a tiny desk!

Background


Most of my career up until the past few years has been spent as a Linux systems administrator both as a contractor and full time with ISPs. I started out using computers as a child when my dad gave me a hand-me-down VIC20. All my friends had games consoles, but I was never allowed one. Instead my dad would set me code tasks to complete which would earn me my next upgrade. I went through a C64, Amiga and then on to various low-end Intel-based PCs until I was old enough to get a job and buy my own.

My dad's friends were completely eccentric hacker-types and he'd take me to visit when I was young. I grew up around people who had hacked valve amplifiers with the cases off and custom-built motion sensors on the doors to their bedsits wired up to a very loud car alarm sitting on top of a bookshelf. There was a semi-constructed motorbike indoors on the first floor of a residential building in Willesden, with lots of computers humming away running Linux all to the sound of Pink Floyd. Hearing my dad and his friends talk about computers and electronics was like listening to some sort of alien language. I didn't understand a word of it, but I wanted to.

At secondary school I met one guy in particular who I'm still good friends with to this day – Robert. We'd copy our QBASIC games on to floppies to swap at school, learning from each other. During this time we also discovered the editors that came with Duke3D and would share levels we had made. Because of Robert, I got heavily in to adventure games and survival horror. Since I didn't have a games console, I had no access to all the games played by cool kids. I was able to run an emulator though. Robert let me borrow his Resident Evil 2 Claire disc and I got hooked. It had all the stuff that we liked in adventure games, obscure puzzles, and it also had this really interesting mix of action and survival. Robert didn't have a memory card, so he would always play these games through on one run without saving. This got us speculating about horror games where you weren't armed and had to survive using just your wits. Of course since we were young, this was just a dream. We'd have to wait for some smarter people to make that game for us.

After school I ended up going straight into work. I started out in PC repair and went through various support roles before spending about 7 years or so as a Linux Systems Administrator. However, that all came to an end when jobs ended up being cut. The timing was pretty bad: we were expecting a baby, and my fiancée and I were some distance apart - she was finishing up her work contract. I did the sensible thing, moved closer to her, and decided to start down a new path.

I started out writing a shmup using XNA, teaching myself C#. Then I got a job as a game tester at Codemasters. There I met a 3D Artist called Ben, who sold me his PC so I could play more up-to-date games. He wouldn't shut up about one game in particular - Amnesia.

I downloaded the demo and that was pretty much it. This was the game I wanted when I was back in school. It was moody and grim like other first person games I'd grown up with and it made me use my brain. I bought it and after gritting my teeth and getting through it, then went back and took a trip through the halls of Penumbra. I realised that I cared more about story in games than I'd believed. I wasn't averse to a good story in games, it's just that it really mattered how well it was presented and whether there was synergy between plot and gameplay. It was a bit of an eye-opener.

After leaving Codemasters, Ben and I decided to have a go at writing games like this. We survived for a while on contract work while trying our own thing, but none of our bigger projects came to fruition. I could handle the mechanics, but it all felt very shallow without solid design. I kept restarting projects trying to get the formula right; but eventually Ben had to move away, and I had to find full time work. So although it never went anywhere, I've still got bits and pieces of prototypes  lying around spanning Japanese folk horror, Asimov sci-fi and dark cyberpunk.

Some remnants that I found kicking around..

Then I stumbled across a job post for Frictional Games; the ideal job, but it took me a while to summon up enough courage to apply. I got stressed out a lot during the long application process and on multiple occasions as the process went on I gave up and told myself I hadn't got the job, retiring to the bathtub for a sulk. But each time I'd get out of the bath to an email telling me I'd gotten further in the application process. I guess that was to be expected when applying to an indie studio renowned for crafting suspense?
  
As I got through to the last part of the application process, things took a turn for the worse. My grandmother who I was very close to passed away. I also had a wedding very soon, so things were all over the place. I had to ask to push the interview back which was yet another worry on top as it's rather unusual to request such a thing during an application process. However as you may guess, the story has a happy ending. I woke up on August 9th ready to get married, and checked my email – I had a job offer. So that turned out to be a pretty good day.

What do I do?

 
Most of my work is at an extremely high level using the in-house editors created by Luis and AngelScript, the scripting language we've embedded. Just like Ian and Patrik, I'm responsible for setting up the events that you're going to encounter in the game and ensuring that everything in the environment is hooked up correctly. At the moment I don't do any C++ stuff, but since I'm surrounded by a lot of smart and experienced programmers, there's a lot of opportunity to learn.

Since other bloggers have already talked about the process of creating the levels and the events that make up our levels, I thought it would be fun to go a little deeper in to what it's like to actually work on an event and some of the cool features in HPL3 that facilitate this high level approach to creating the game. I sometimes play with the older Amnesia toolset in my spare time, so it's quite easy to spot where things have improved.

So let's jump right in to some of the really big differences. One of the most used tools in the scripter's arsenal is the Area. In Amnesia, you needed to place down an area with the type set to “Script” and then in order to hook up a simple player/area collision you'd end up with a section of your script file that looked a lot like this:
void OnStart()
{
     AddEntityCollideCallback("Player", "AreaOne", "CollideAreaOne", true, 1);
     AddEntityCollideCallback("Player", "AreaTwo", "CollideAreaTwo", true, 1);
}
Now with HPL3 while you can still add and remove collision callbacks and connections at runtime the process is certainly a lot tidier and easier to maintain with regards to setting these things up at the start.


 
Your old callbacks such as PlayerLookAtCallback and PlayerInteractCallback can still be found under the Basic Callbacks tab but, as you can see, a lot more has been added in HPL3. To set up a basic collision trigger to use in script, we simply have to specify the entities that we want to take into account for the collision and the function name that we want to have called in script. Keep in mind if you have a number of entities that you want to collide with this area, we support wildcards. So if you have a bunch of red cubes you want the player to throw in to a basket, the entities field would have cube_red* and then this works for all matching entities. Lastly, thanks to the handy “Copy” button, we can automatically copy and paste a skeleton method into our script:
bool CollideAreaOne(const tString &in asParent, const tString &in asChild, int alState)
{
     return true;
}
The boolean return type lets us control whether or not the callback will be removed once it has executed, just like the old callback system. The alState parameter tells us whether the player has entered or left the area - there's no need for multiple functions. Say we want all the lights to turn off when the player enters a bathroom and for the player to remark on just how creepy it was when they exit the area and then disable the callback – we can now do all this inside a single function using a combination of the return value and the state parameter.
bool CollideAreaOne(const tString &in asParent, const tString &in asChild, int alState)
{
     /////////////////////////////
     // Player enters the bathroom 
     // (When alState==1, we've entered the trigger area.)
     if (alState == 1)
     {
          Lamp_SetLit(“Bathroom_Lamps*”,false,true);
          return true; // Allow the callback to run again
     }

     /////////////////////////////
     // Player exits the bathroom and remove callback
     // (When alState==-1, we've left the trigger area.)
     else // alState will be -1
     {
          Voice_Play(“CreepyBathroom”);
          return false; // Remove the callback
     }
}
Obviously while this is one of the most basic events you can script it should hopefully demonstrate that with this new approach it's a lot easier to be able to write your scripts in the order you mostly expect events to happen without having to move around in the file too much. This, along with many other improvements that follow the KISS principle, makes HPL3 a lot easier to work with than its predecessors.
  
Another thing that's particularly useful and considerably easier to implement compared to HPL2 is the timed sequence. Perhaps you remember trying to write an intro sequence and ending up with something that looked like this? Certainly if you've ever looked at some of the existing maps you'll recognise this approach and have probably based some of your own scripts around it:
void TimerIntro(string &in asTimer)
{
     string sEvent = asTimer;
     AddLocalVarInt(sEvent, 1);
     bool bPauseAtStep = false;

     float fEventSpeed = 1.0f;
     switch(GetLocalVarInt(sEvent))
     {
          case 0:
             PlayGuiSound("scare_baby_cry.snt", 0.3f);
             fEventSpeed = 4.0f;
          break;

          case 1:
             FadeIn(5.0f)
             FadeImageTrailTo(1.25f,0.1f);
          break;

          // And many more steps to follow!
  
          default:
               bPauseAtStep = true;
          break;
     }

     if(!bPauseAtStep)
          AddTimer(sEvent, fEventSpeed, sEvent);
}
Although this worked, this was a slightly cumbersome way to work with these timed sequences at the higher level. Now, we have helpers specifically for doing this. How they actually work is a little different. We have a separate helper class which holds the current step as an int and then checks to see if the current step should be run or not. The great thing is that all the inner workings of the sequence helpers are exposed through script so it is always possible to add more functionality and reuse this across all maps.

Here's how a sequence now looks:
cSequenceStatesData mSequenceBabyCry;
void SequenceBabyCry(const tString &in asTimer)
{
     Sequence_Begin(“SequenceBabyCry”, mSequenceBabyCry);

     if (Sequence_DoStepAndWait(4.0f))
     {
          Sound_PlayGui(“scares/scare_baby_cry”, 0.3f);
     }
     else if (Sequence_DoStepAndWait(3.0f))
     {
          Effect_Fade_In(5.0f);
          Effect_ImageTrail_Start(1.25f,0.1f,10,10);
     }

     // More steps!

     Sequence_End();
}
This is much easier to work with and lets you move things around with ease without having to change as many things if you want to add something later.

Another feature which I'll praise at least once a month is definitely worth mentioning here. This is where HPL3 really shines for me compared to some other toolsets.

Often it's been the case where I'd have to stop a game in order to make a change, recompile and then get back to the point that I was at in order to test. This could get old pretty fast, especially when you were after a very specific feel that required some fine tuning.

Almost everything you will ever need is exposed through scripts with HPL3 and if it isn't, you can easily write it in script. Most of these with a few exceptions can be reloaded at runtime by simply pressing F5 to reload the level. However, HPL3 will also reload your level script on task switch if you want it to. So you can alt tab over to your scripting file to make a few changes, save the file and when you alt tab back to the game you can just test your event again. Add a debug key that resets all the conditions and you'll find yourself able to tweak values to your hearts content with minimal downtime. However if that still isn't fast enough for you, the game can be left running and can automatically reload changes in your script file - which is particularly efficient if you're running a dual monitor setup.

There's such an extensive list of new features that HPL3 has it would be impossible to list them all here, but in time I suspect all will be revealed.. In the meantime however, if this has gotten you interested in some of the scripting possibilities - you can check out a little more on HPL3 scripting here where Thomas Grip explains some of the other things you can do:


I think I've rambled long enough, so hopefully now you know a little more about me and what I do with the rest of the team. Cheers!


Friday, 13 June 2014

People of Frictional: Ian Thomas

Tenth post in the series. You can read the other posts here.

Who am I?

I’m Ian, one of the handful of Brits on the Frictional team. Like Patrik, I’m a level scripter and gameplay programmer. I’m a recent recruit - I only joined Frictional in October 2013, and have been on SOMA since then.

Like everyone else, I work from home. I live in Cardiff in South Wales in a house that was once a butcher’s shop. Kind of appropriate for Frictional, somehow. When we excavated the cavernous and partially-flooded basement, we found a door that led to nowhere. It’s that sort of house.

So here’s the obligatory workspace photo:
Yeah, I know, cluttered! Note how I’ve carefully selected the angle of my screen so that daylight glares right off it. Nice for working on dark, spooky environments, huh?

Background

I’m the old man of the company, and got into the industry by a weird set of diversions. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, but here’s a small selection of the official jobs I’ve had:
  • Run a mask and puppet-making company.
  • Worked in a cartoon studio (the one who made Superted, for the Brits!) in the days when animations were still drawn by hand on paper.
  • Worked in a nut-making factory. You know, like nuts-and-bolts. I’ve still no idea who made the bolts.
  • Headed up the team making the official Fireman Sam CD-ROM in the days when CD-ROMs were a new and exciting thing.
  • Worked in a department licensing people to dig holes in roads, and also licensing people to supervise other people digging holes in roads. Oddly enough, the number of supervisor licenses vastly outstripped the number of people actually licensed to dig, which explains the UK road system.
  • Been chief technical architect for an interactive TV company, designing and building the systems behind a series of interactive TV channels on the Sky platform, when the ‘red button’ was a new and exciting thing.
  • Been co-director of a company making educational games for young kids. We released about 40 interactive titles, a bunch of books and a board game.
  • Worked on a bunch of LEGO console and PC games as a game mechanics coder, where I got to write code for Obi-Wan and Jack Sparrow and Harry Potter and the like.
  • Worked on the port of LittleBigPlanet to the Vita, mostly doing the code behind the touch interface.
  • Worked as narrative designer and gameplay/UI coder on the port of Frozen Synapse to the Vita (which, at the time of writing, still isn’t out).
I grew up in Scotland and started out with computers pretty early on: ZX81, Sinclair QL (I was the customer!), then Amiga 500. I coded from the very first because my ZX81 wouldn’t save or load - which meant I’d type in a program, run it a few times, then turn off the computer and would never see that program again. The QL was pretty much a dead-end, but with no real games for it I had to write my own. The Amiga was an astounding machine. I still miss writing for it, and there were so many superb and iconic games on it. For reasons of Windows-hatred I stayed with that Amiga through University (Computer Science in Glasgow), desperately hoping it’d survive - and then moved on to Sun workstations in the computer labs, where I spent too much time creating and running multi-user text games.

After Uni I moved to the middle of nowhere in Wales, which kind of put paid to any aims I might have had to get into the games industry, and that’s why I made a start on that weird list above.

As you can see from those jobs it took a while to get back on track. But games were what I always wanted to do, and when I’d been running the kids’ games company for a bunch of years I finally went ‘you know what? if I don’t get in now, I’ll regret it’ and made the jump to a triple-A studio.

It wasn’t easy. First I had to convince someone in the games industry to take me on. I had years of coding in a bunch of different languages (including C++, very much still the core requirement in a AAA game coder), so I could show off the tech skills; but I also had to convince them that I knew about games and games code. Traveller’s Tales liked my work test; happily I could talk about Monkey Island and Baldur’s Gate for hours. I think they eventually gave in to shut me up.

LEGO Harry Potter. I forget which title.
LEGO Star Wars III. Anakin's acting was so much better than in the movies.
Once I’d had enough of LEGO (I know that sounds unlikely), I moved to Double Eleven in Middlesbrough and worked on the Vita when the Vita was still called some Sony codename or other; oddly enough, collaborating with a Swedish company (Tarsier). After LittleBigPlanet I did a fairly hefty narrative rewrite on Frozen Synapse for the Vita; it’ll be interesting to see what it finally turns into when it comes out.
Converting a gamepad-powered editor to a touch editor can't be hard, right? Right!?
Converting a mouse-and-menu-driven game to sticks-and-touchpad can't be hard either...
Then comes the bit I’m ashamed about. A friend saw a job at Frictional and asked me if I’d be a reference for him if he applied. Of course I said yes; and then I saw the job description. I asked him if he’d mind terribly much if I applied for it too as it looked ideal for me. He said yes, we both applied, and I got the job. I’m not sure if he’s forgiven me yet. (I don't recommend having to do a work test in the spare moments of a project crunch, by the way!)

Ah, I’ve missed something, haven’t I? Why would Double Eleven let me do a narrative rewrite on a title?
Where's My Shoggoth?
Shameless plug!
It’s pretty straightforward. The list of jobs up at the top of the page have been my day jobs. By night *puts on hat and cape* I’ve been doing things with story for about twenty years. All sorts of things. I’ve written feature film scripts - one got made into a full-length film last year, and another shoots this summer. I’ve written books, including kids' books about Cthulhu. I’ve written and designed narrative for games, and have spent many years writing and running live-action events and interactives of all sorts. So it’s nice to be able to bring some of that into the games I’m working on.

I should set the record straight, though, as some games journalists have got that wrong - I don’t do any of the writing or narrative design for SOMA (other than the usual brainstorms the whole company gets into). Mike is our writer, and Mike and Thomas deal with the overall story. I just occasionally edit people’s blogs for typos. :-) I still do narrative design & writing - just not for Frictional.

What do Iwe do?

This section could be a bit bare, because Patrik’s already given you folks a rough idea of the level scripting process for SOMA. And that’s pretty much what I do. So instead, the guys suggested I write a little bit about how we deal with working remotely.

For those who haven’t realised it, Frictional doesn’t have an office. Everyone in the company is remote. While most people are in Sweden, we now have four guys in the UK and one in Spain, and everyone works from home. Everyone also speaks English, which is really useful for me but also brings on the old colonial guilt.

We have textual Skype running constantly, split into a few chat rooms. The main one is normally full of weird links and discussions about which is the best game to be playing on Steam at the moment. I guess it takes the place of people arguing around the coffee machine in an office. Then there’s a chat room for level scripting and design; one for programming; one for art, and we set up whatever other rooms we need for whatever else is going on.

So despite us all being in different places, there’s a constant sense of presence - people are always commenting and chatting via text on Skype, asking each other questions about the game, complaining about bugs, or posting Luis’s Grunt-pinup pictures. 

Then every Friday morning we have a group audio call, where Thomas goes through any general company news and then everyone chats through what they’ve been up to that week. Luis will say he’s been fixing editor bugs in an Eeyore-kind-of-voice, because that’s what he says every week. Someone will be asked to talk, we’ll hear nothing for a while, and then that person will realise they’re on mute. Someone else’s Skype connection will drop constantly. Thomas’s young son will join the conversation with loud squealing, or end it prematurely. Jens, for reasons no-one quite understands, will be mysteriously busy during the meeting. I think he has an allergy. But it all kind of works - it gives you a good overview of what’s going on and it’s good to hear people’s voices. Although it was a weird experience meeting everyone physically for the first time at GDC this year - everyone was about ten years younger than I expected.

Outside of the regular meetings we often have brainstorming audio sessions with Thomas when about to start on new levels or when trying to work through some particularly tricky gameplay problem. (“But look, if Simon could ride a unicycle then this puzzle would be a lot easier - can’t we get Mike to write an underwater circus background into the story?”)

Moving away from Skype, we have a shared wiki where we keep the engine documentation, workflow & pipeline information, and design documentation. We use Google Docs a lot, but generally for more temporary stuff such as the feedback notes everyone in the company gives after trying out a level. All our code and assets are stored in Subversion, along with things like Mike’s scripts. We make use of Dropbox for sharing assets with contractors and freelancers.

For general project and task management we’ve recently moved to Trello, which is a very simple task-management system where you lay out things on virtual index cards - essentially a well-organised Todo list. Before that we were relying on a much more complex task tracker and a series of Google Docs; Trello has simplified that dramatically. Also it has a Pirate mode. Every productivity tool should have a Pirate mode.

We also have something called S&T - Show and Tell. Every so often we have a milestone for a level, after it's been worked on for a few weeks. At that point it should be playable, and everyone in the company spends a couple of hours together playing through it and writing their impressions into a feedback document. So everyone gets a say about whether they think the level is working on all counts - art, gameplay, sound, story, general atmosphere. We'll often have Skype discussion based on that feedback doc and throw ideas around. Then Thomas will do a pass through the comments and mark which things he considers important and which are nice-to-haves. They'll turn into Trello cards for the different people working on the level. (S&T also applies to engine and editor code - it's just that levels are easier to explain!)

This means that unlike some bigger companies, everyone here gets to comment on the direction the game is taking. It's fantastic - you're not just a cog in the machine, faithfully doing what gets handed down to you by the design department. ;-) You also get to see the whole game as it develops instead of working on isolated levels or features.

So, how is it compared to working in an office? It’s really not that different. It’s easier to tune out noise when you’re trying to concentrate on getting something done - you just ignore the ten posts about E3 reveals that have just gone past. It’s very easy to talk to someone else - easier than it was being in an office of three hundred people, really, because by the time you’d trekked down three floors to talk to the rendering team they’d all gone out to lunch. You can play your own music. You can eat garlic-flavoured snacks.

Other companies shy away from remote working, partly because they worry about people being out of the loop. I’ve been in situations in the past where I was the only remote worker and everyone else was in an office. That really sucks. But because there is no central office and none of us really have anyone else to be talking to during the working day, it feels like a nice tight-knit group here.

And that’s the other argument I hear - mostly from bosses - about remote working. “How could we trust that people were getting on with their work?” It’s pretty simple, really - it is about trust. If you don't trust your staff (whether they're in an office or not) then why did you hire them? If you know everyone is into the project, engaged in it, and wants to make a great game, then you don’t have to stand over them checking up on them all the time. 

I’ve waffled on long enough. I hope that gives you a little insight into how we keep it together. Cheers!


Friday, 30 May 2014

ParticleEditor updates

Hey! Today I'm sharing the results of the last two weeks of work on the ParticleEditor with you. I've had loads of time for additions and improvements -- I'm just gonna go over the most notable ones briefly:

  • Live update of particles: No more resetting the whole particle system to see the effect that little parameter you changed actually has!
  • Control of the update speed: Something looks weird but you can't spot what it is? Just slow the whole thing down. Works everytime.
  • Easing functions for fading values: We don't have tweakable curve controls just yet, but these work like a charm in the meantime. 
  • Helper graphs: A really nice addition so you can preview how fades are going to work. Together with easing functions, a slider and the live update, this is fun just to play around with.
Of course, a little video works way better than words for showing these off, so here it is:



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