Legacy of the Elder Star: Dev Diary #1

I haven't posted a new Legacy of the Elder Star update to the game's Tumblr since GDC, which I realized today was an alarming two and a half months ago. Time sure flies when you're organizing conventions, rebranding and rebooting a business, and launching a new website!

Now that things are settling down a bit, I'm starting (well, sort of restarting) an Elder Star dev diary series. Today I want to talk about what we've been up to since GDC.

Most of March and the near-entirety of April were consumed with largely-boring business and legal stuff associated with launching Kickbomb, as well as wrapping up my most recent contract in order to free up my schedule to work on Legacy of the Elder Star full-time. In between all that we did manage to fit a couple of public appearances: first at Hackathon, a local community event to teach teens about careers in tech, and later at the Utah Scouting Expo.

Both events provided us with loads of useful playtesting and feedback. The Scouting Expo in particular was super-valuable because for that show I upgraded our automatic bug reporter to support local data caching, which is ideal for conventions where we usually don't have Internet access. With the huge amount of test coverage we get at busy shows like this (we ran 169 game sessions that dayI was able to capture debug info on a half-dozen hard-to-reproduce bugs, all of which are now fixed.

When it comes to playtesting, conventions are just the best. :D

At the beginning of May I (finally) started actual full-time work on Elder Star. The first order of business was upgrading the project to Unity 5; mostly painless, kinda boring, but overall a pretty big under-the-hood improvement.

I also had a bunch of catching up to do on art integration, since Erik was still cranking out assets while I had been preoccupied with business, legal, and contract stuff. One of his key goals after GDC was to establish a visual language for enemies' three main weapon types: beams, guns, and missiles. To that end, we now have a new palette of light drones:

...and similarly-updated heavy drones:

They're still monochromatic but we plan to give them paint jobs in the near future, which will help to further differentiate each type.

We've also got some sweet new anchored turrets which track your movement:

The turrets have a really creepy organic feel because their support arm articulates like a mechanical tentacle. I'll do a more detailed post about turrets soon; there's a pretty neat development technique behind them, IMO.

And we're currently in-progress on integrating our new synthetic soldiers:

Like the rest of the Infinite Legion, these guys are robots. But because of their bipedal design, we're doing a lot of work to make them move in a more organic, life-like way. Their legs sway dynamically based on their velocity (just like we do with the Cosmonaut), they turn around to keep facing you if you move to their other side, they fall out of the sky when killed instead of just blowing up on the spot, and soon they'll track your movements with both a head-tracking setup and a dynamic aiming pose on their gun. (As with turrets, I'll do a more detailed post about the soldiers' development technique soon.)

Last but not least, I've made a significant effort this month to flesh out and nail down the game's high-level design, structure, and narrative. Up until recently I'd been exclusively focused on the core gameplay (i.e. the experience of playing a single stage) but we've got that pretty well refined now, and it's time to start putting stages in the context of a higher-level structure and story.

I've often found wordy design documents to be next-to-useless; design concepts are tightly interrelated and trying to organize them into a linear format is an exercise in futility. Fortunately, Trello turns out to be an excellent tool for design documentation. Its non-linear, list-based structure is ideal for organizing ideas and concepts along multiple axes. With one card per feature or idea you get a nice encapsulation of each design unit, complete with its own history, attachments, and comments thread. And since it uses a "webby" UI instead of a printed-page metaphor, it totally eliminates that obnoxious temptation to screw around with font choice and formatting forever, freeing you to focus on content quality.

I'll do a more in-depth post about using Trello for design documentation later, but here's a quick preview of my design board so you can get a sense for how one could be organized:

(You'll probably want to click to expand that image in order to read it. Also, sorry about all the redactions; they're just things I'm not ready to talk publicly about yet. Soon!)

And here's a good example of the type of info I have on a single feature card; very informal (almost stream-of-consciousness) and absent extraneous details:

As shown here, comments are a great way to not only discuss features, but remind yourself of reasons why you made certain decisions. That can come in handy when you inevitably start second-guessing yourself three weeks later. ;)

Ok, yeah, this was a long post. We had a lot of catching up to do! But we're well underway now, and I've already got plenty of other cool stuff to show off in the next few dev diaries.

Things are heating up!