Monday 29 June 2015

What We Showed At E3

So this year we went to E3 for first time and did two things we have never done before.

First, we took part in an E3 show, the PC Gaming Show, and showed off a brand new trailer. You can watch that trailer here:

This showcases the player's first encounter with a type of creature that roams this part of the game, and gives some hints on how to best deal with them. This clip is a bit shorter than we wanted it to be and therefore misses some build-up and is a bit hurried. But one minute was all we were allowed for the show. Still, hope you all liked it!

Second, we showed off a public demo of the game (something we only did after release for previous games).

Choosing a demo for SOMA proved to be quite difficult as we wanted to have something that we felt represented the game properly without giving away lots of spoilers. The problem is that SOMA is not the sort of game that can be easily explained in a short session. For E3 we had to make it last 15 - 20 minutes, which for us is really short indeed.

SOMA is a slow burn experience with a primary focus on the exploration of high-level concepts. Trying to showcase this is very different from showing off a game that is about exploring an environment or one that's focused on a set of core mechanics - in those sort of games it's much easier to find a short segment that serves as a good example. But for SOMA, that sort of segment really doesn't exist. SOMA is designed to carefully introduce the player to a variety of concepts and to ease the player into a certain kind of atmosphere and state of mind.

The best solution would have been to do a special map, similar to how we did with the announcement video. That way we could have tried to condense the intended experience into a shorter level. But this takes a lot of time. Setting up the announcement video took several weeks. Doing one meant for public demoing would take even longer as we'd have to make sure it was bug free and that the gameplay worked as intended. So the next best thing was to take something from the game and modify it slightly to avoid big spoilers.

But the problem was: what section from the game should we use? As I noted above, SOMA takes its time to establish concepts and atmosphere, and any 15 minute segment we just chopped out would lack the context needed to properly understand the situation at hand and to be immersed in it.

Our first plan was simply to take one of our more intense monster sequences. That would provide a quick demo that was easy to get into and would provide a thrilling experience. But the issue was that we then would fail to showcase what's special about our game. The game would just look like yet another "run from the monster"-ordeal, and making sure that people understand that SOMA is something way beyond this is very important to us.

So after much discussion we decided to rip the latter half of a level that is about 1-2 hours into the game. This part would showcase player choices, environmental storytelling, our philosophical aspects, provide an underwater revelation at the end and (if the player chose to take a particular path) would have a short monster encounter.

However, our choice of demo was not perfect. Most importantly, by itself, this part of the game isn't particularly scary. This in part is because the demo lacks a lot of the intended build-up, and in part because it wasn't (apart from a final monster encounter) designed to be all that frightening. And while SOMA doesn't focus on "run from monsters", it is a horror game and we are very much intending to induce terror in our players. Therefore it felt annoying to have a demo that didn't bring home that aspect. But still, making players whimper from fear is not really a unique concept any more, so given the choice, it felt much more important to give a taste of the disturbing feel our themes give rise to.

Another issue was that our demo took place in a section of game that we'd already showed off in our release date reveal trailer (check it out here). I think this has led to a bit less coverage than we'd have had otherwise. There was quite a bit of new stuff that players could do in the demo, such as checking out black boxes on corpses, interacting in different ways with "Carl" the robot, exploring the computer system etc. and a previously unseen sequence at the end. But the demo still took place in the same locale and all of the major elements were still the same.

That said, I feel we did the best we could given the constraints we had. And judging from the reactions that we got at E3, people enjoyed it quite a lot and almost all the players came away with the right impression. Both Ian and Aaron (the Frictional Games team members that attended E3) were actually quite surprised how well most people picked up on our deeper aspects. This despite playing the game under far from optimal conditions (a well-lit, loud and crowded room is not all that great for games that thrive on immersion and introspection). Again, just like in our last round of testing, the way people connect to the themes in SOMA went way better than expected, and that makes us even more even more thrilled to unleash our creation on the world!

On that note, SOMA is less than three months from release now! So close!