Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Giving Thanks + New Mixed Reality Photo

Tomorrow many people in the US will be celebrating the holiday of Thanksgiving. Regardless of how it started, it is now a time where families and friends gather together to say "thank you" for everything they are grateful for. For us at White Lotus, we are thankful for so many things.

We are thankful for...

  • All of our Kickstarter backers, who believed in us and helped launch us on this amazing journey. We are starting to see the light!
  • Our parents, who have continued to support us though all of development.
  • Our friends and other family members, for putting smiles on our faces; who have been there for us through our ups and downs, and given us comfort and words of advice in times of need. 
  • Our professors and teachers, like Vinnie Morrison, who inspired us to achieve more, and not to settle for just "good enough" in our work.
  • All of the people who work at Epic Games, for continuing to improve upon and make using Unreal Engine 4 a great experience for all developers, including smaller ones like us.
  • The software that we use, such as Photoshop and Cubase, for just existing, and allowing us to achieve our visions to make digital art and music.
  • All the past and present game developers, who carved the path, and who continue to inspire us with their amazing games!
  • Our supporters who follow us on social media, and who help us share our latest updates, or simply write us kind words and comments. It means so much. 
  • Our health, because there would be no way we could do everything we do on this game without sound minds and bodies to do it all with.

Happy Thanksgiving from James, Koriel, and John :D
(Photo from GDC 2015)

We hope that everyone giving thanks tomorrow tries to look at the positives in their lives, and keeps motivated to live their lives to the fullest. :)

Also, before we let you go, here is the newest addition to our Mixed Reality photo series
featuring XING: The Land Beyond!

Thank you for reading, and have a wonderful rest of the week!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Graphics in XING + The Bright Side of Delays

Hello, John here!

For my blog post today I'm going to ramble about some of the development process we are going through, as well as some of the tougher problems I'm working to solve. I'll also address the ongoing delay of the release.

First, a quick update on development. I've recently been busy integrating the changes made in Unreal Engine 4.14 to our custom 4.12 build specifically to better support the ever changing SDK's of all the VR headsets we are supporting, as well as for a few other nice improvements to the editor. Our friends at Cyan were the ones who really encouraged us to mess around with the engine itself to better suit our needs, and while it's initially a daunting task I'm really happy I dove into it.

We've actually cycled our entire project from engine version to engine version since the original 4.0 release, and getting my hands dirty with the engine code is certainly helping me better understand some of the "magic" that makes up Unreal.

Rainforest Landscape Material

The specific changes I've made to the engine are mostly small, but important for our game. For example, I modified the code used for saving the game on PS4 to run on an asynchronous thread, meaning the game saves without hitches or pausing. Doing this change opens up the opportunity to have saving run in the background and not rely on breaking gameplay to save the game. Of course, having background saving presents the problem of how to let the player know their game is saved - something we'll need to address at some point.


Another important change I've made is modifying the internal Screen Space Ambient Occlusion (SSAO) shader to apply a simple full screen blur for use with Fast Approximate Anti-Aliasing (FXAA). This is essential for avoiding the strange dither pattern on SSAO when we are rendering without Temporal Anti-Aliasing (TAA).

Speaking of AA (anti-aliasing, or "removing jaggies"), I've decided to stick with FXAA as our primary AA solution. While TAA has some awesome strengths and really can completely remove aliasing in a lot of cases, the ghosting and Vaseline effect it gets criticized for in modern games like Fallout 4, as well as adding a slight rendering cost on lower end hardware, has led us to defaulting to FXAA. I'm not sure if we'll be offering TAA as an option as it currently breaks a couple of shaders, but you will certainly have the option to disable AA if you like, as well as super sampling the game if you have the hardware for it.
Scaling Cloud Shader
Scaling Cloud Shader

Graphics Settings

Graphics settings are an interesting point of discussion regarding PlayStation as well. While I've seen a few titles offer some settings to players in the past, it seems like more and more games are giving players some presets to play with on consoles - things like sacrificing frame-rate for resolution and vice versa. I'm honestly not sure what we are going to offer on that note.

All of our demos on PS4 so far have been 1080p unlocked frame-rate that sticks pretty close to 60 at all times, but to be fair we've been mostly demoing some of our less-demanding content. I personally prefer the game to be running at 45+ fps - any less and I start to "feel" the frame-rate, but I know some people strongly prefer 60 fps, even if it means sacrificing quality. I'm not super keen on providing a 900p setting, although I think a lot of games are 900p and most people don't even notice. Interestingly, another puzzle game (The Witness) decided to stick with 900p to lock the frame-rate to 60 on the PS4.

Obviously the PSVR has a strict frame-rate requirement that we are required to hit, and to do so there is certainly a hit to post process quality and scene detail. I'm not gonna lie to you and say all these screenshots you've been seeing are coming straight off of a PSVR - the settings are noticeably dropped to maintain frame-rate (not to mention VR photos are pretty unsightly at the moment - I wonder if we'll see a better solution to that in the future?). In the interest of transparency, here's some work in progress photos demonstrating what some of the scalability settings will look like.

Work in Progress - High Preset
Work in Progress - Medium Preset
Work in Progress - Low Preset


On a concluding note, I'm very much interested in making sure XING is an extremely polished experience no matter the hardware you are playing on. I hope this attention to detail somewhat alleviates the admittedly extraordinary duration some of you have patiently been waiting for.  The scope and reach of this project has FAR exceeded my expectations setting off, for better or for worse.

But don't worry, this multi-year delay has some fantastic benefits for you, the player:

  • The game has about four times the content than we had initially designed
  • Voice-acted characters
  • A massive set of optional puzzles and content
  • Literally three years of polish
  • A completely ridiculous amount of art for a 3 person indie team to try to push out
  • Way too much music - levels that were going to have one track now have 4+ with variation
  • PS4 support
  • Support for the three major VR headsets, including tracked hand controllers
It's been a long wait, and because we still have a lot of unknowns ahead of ourselves there no point in specifying a target date. What I can say is we are very far along - things have never looked better for the future of the project, and we are in no way in any danger of disappearing. We've all worked extremely hard to get to where we are now and we will continue to do so until we are happy with the entire package we are releasing to the world.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Obduction - From the Perspective of an Adventure Game Developer

Early last week the independent game developer Cyan released a virtual reality version of their latest creation, Obduction, into the wild. This marks Cyan’s first foray into VR and a departure from working on sequels to their acclaimed Myst series. Obduction’s game design and atmosphere feel deeply rooted in the company's previous work, yet remain feeling fresh and wholly original. Instead of writing about our game XING’s development directly, this week I will be doing so through the lens of the release of Obduction.

Gamers have seen the release of many great puzzle and adventure games in recent years, including The Witness, Firewatch, The Talos Principle, and Monument Valley to name a few. Despite the emergence of so many titles which credit Myst as an influence for their game, there is actually a significant lack of a pure Myst-style game design actually deployed in these games. That is to say, there are few puzzle games released which stick to the original formula of Myst, which features what I’ll call world-scale puzzle solving, as opposed to room-scale puzzle solving. I’m not talking about room-scale VR here, I’m talking about the scope of puzzles and how they are presented to the player.

Standing Apart from Modern Formulas

Among the modern puzzlers I mentioned, possibly the most unlike Obduction is The Talos Principle. In Talos, the player is presented with multitudes of puzzles at a time, and the player can solve them in any order. In Obduction, the player seemingly has only one objective to do at a time, or perhaps the player is still trying to figure out what that singular objective even is. At a macro level, the player is rarely wondering what they should be doing in games like Portal or The Talos Principle. The finite puzzle solution may not be ascertained, but the player at least knows which door they are trying to get through. The player is confined to a “room” and must unlock that room. This starkly contrasts the core world-scale theme of Cyan’s design vocabulary, which the company has fine tuned in their latest release.
Screenshot from Portal

Screenshot from The Talos Principle
In Obduction, the metaphor for room-sized puzzles doesn’t exist, and instead the entire game world is the puzzle. Pulling a lever or uncovering a secret code may unlock a door for you on the other side of the game’s universe. This not only contrasts The Talos Principle but also other modern puzzle games like The Witness and even Monument Valley, which each confine puzzle-solving to specific zones. While The Witness also has some larger world-scale puzzle solving that, along with an island setting that really harken it back to Myst, Obduction relies on world-scale puzzle solving exclusively. By doing so, Obduction easily distances itself from these modern formulas, yet remains deeply compelling.

The narrative-adventure game Firewatch tells its story across an expansive game world like Obduction, but without traditional puzzle solving, and instead, allowing the player to explore and observe the story in their own way. Both games use visual spectacle as a way to reward the player for making progress, and utilize the environment as a storytelling device. A desire to see the next vista also becomes a driving force for the player in our own game, XING: The Land Beyond.

Screenshot from Firewatch

Differences with XING

While the formula for XING has evolved over the course of development, we can still look back to our Kickstarter days and see how the initial seeds of design naturally grew into what the game is today. You can absolutely point out aspects of XING that are reminiscent of Portal, The Legend of Zelda series, Golden Sun, and yes, Myst. XING features a hub world and a collection of lush and diverse outdoor environments, but perhaps the similarities with Myst end there. More akin to Portal, we linearly introduce game mechanics and puzzles, which are typically confined to specific zones. Influence from The Legend of Zelda franchise, especially the dungeon design of Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask, can be seen in the effort we have put into creating novel puzzle moments crafted for unique environments. This idea of uncovering novelty became important for XING, and seems universal to all adventure games.

I have been playing through Obduction on the Oculus Rift without looking at guides or hints, and the experience remind me of the magic of earning discoveries. Our development team is careful about releasing screenshots of new content or talking about puzzles, as we know those moments of surprise are special for gamers. We are continuing to polish up those special moments in preparation for what we hope will be a novel and memorable experience for gamers. Stay tuned!