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Ted Bundy's car? :D
Harry Gray and Preston McClary talked about their project White Noise: story and game development, mechanics, animation, trailer, challenges.
My name is Harry, I was born in England, however, have spent the majority of my life living in Bangladesh and China. I wnt to Ringling and through those four years, I found I had an affinity for technical art and dynamics in games.
My name is Preston McClary, originally from Vermont. I fell in love with games ever since I saved up enough money to buy my first console. Since then my life has led me towards the games industry and I’ve developed a passion for creating quality environments with high-level concepts
We are the two developers of White Noise, a vertical slice of a game developed at Ringling. We like to refer to it as the first chapter of what could be a much longer experience.
Studying & Improving
Preston: Ringling is consistent in its message to hold us as students to a professional standard from day one. If it doesn’t look like an AAA title then it doesn’t fly. In the beginning, we are given a walkthrough of all the programs and industry pipelines, but it is ultimately up to us to teach ourselves and push ourselves to grow as artists with guidance from faculty who have 20 plus years of industry experience.
Harry: What is the secret 0f achieving high quality in something? Just do it. Hunker down and push yourself as hard as you can to get the work done and improve. It’s not something everyone can do and that’s okay. When we started we had about 100 students in our freshman class, but, by the end of senior year, we only had about 30 people left.
Preston: Harry and I have been clear with each other about the fact that we wanted to get as close to a vertical slice as possible that means everything from visuals to the score had to sound like it could be from a game being demoed at E3. This meant we had to contact a composer and thankfully Harry knew a guy, Brandon Lau, who composed for our game. He joined the project at the start so we could have him see the game as it developed. We discovered what ‘White Noise’ sound was and revolved the entire game track around it.
Harry: The very first inspirational visual for the game was this character done by David Domingo Jimenez. A game can come from a character, a mechanic, or a story, and if you’re lucky you start with all three things merging together. We started with a vague idea for a character, evolving ideas for the mechanic, and as we thought about the logic of the world the story was built. We thought we had a pretty original idea! But during the visual development Unity’s Tech Demo “ADAM” came out, then I saw blade runner for the first time, and it slowly dawned on us that this was something others had thought of before.
Harry: The idea of the main mechanic came from a love of so many different games that use rail sliding whether it is an arcade rail shooter, a retro game like Sonic or the newer titles like Sunset Overdrive and Infamous. What we wanted to do was take what most games use only sparingly and make that the main focus of the experience.
I’d like to believe White Noise’s rail sliding mechanic differentiates itself from the crowd by being a very accessible, adaptable open-world locomotion system. We knew we wanted it to be the player’s main form of overcoming obstacles and exploration, so we leaned on aspects of it from Sunset Overdrive. However, their controls are taught quickly and many people complained about it being hard to remember everything, so simplicity was a focus as well as the ‘flow’ of the character. But we also took that exact same mechanic and altered it for the train sections, taking away all control except for Left and Right. This allowed players to not get overwhelmed by everything happening around them, as well as letting us decide exactly what they would see and when they would see it.
For the mechanic itself, I did a lot of research. First of all, I wanted to see if anyone had done a similar Rail Slider in UE4 before. There’s a lot of spline followers out there, which was useful when ideating the trains, but we needed a system that had absolute freedom. Enter and exit anywhere, at any time, jumping from one rail to another, attaching from below, and at one point in the development, we even had a hang grind. There’s a lot of blueprint involved here so if you, the reader, are interested then check out the video below! In it, I go through the entire process of developing the mechanic and the mindset behind each choice.
Harry: I was the animator for our player character. We used Maya for all our modeling and animation. The main challenge for game animation definitely comes from the amount of looping things and additive animations that have to happen. I think the character has about 32 animations which took around a month or a little more. Other than that it’s how to figure out when to okay each animation. I organized everything in an excel sheet with each needed animation marked as ‘Stepped,’ ‘Splined,’ and ‘Polished.’ Not all animations made it to ‘Polished’. With only one person animating on such a harsh deadline, there has to be a point where you say ‘Okay! It’s good enough for now, I’ll come back to it if I have time’. The ‘hard landing’ system, for one, took a while to get right, even now it still doesn’t always work.
With the style, we could have gone in multiple directions. Did we want the character to move like a janky robot? Like a pristine ordered robot? Or a human? Bringing that human quality to him through his movements was the direction and ended up being very important to his character. He goes from an emotional and confused walk in painful situations to a determined jog, and finally an aggressive sprint. These animations had to match the player’s feelings at the moment so they really were some of the most important pieces alongside similar sliding animations.
Animation for the Boss, however, was something we knew the two of us didn’t have time for. I was so heavily focused on getting the player character to feel smooth and flow well that we knew we had to outsource the rigging and animation for it. This is where Kegan Jones and Jamie Lozada came in. Kegan is an experienced rigger for both film and now games which we needed for the complexity of Preston’s Security Drone model. And Jamie has an arsenal of skills in animation for games that he was able to apply to the drone to bring life to it.
Modularity as a Time Saver
Preston: I have always been a big believer that a mod kit, when used, should never look like a mod kit in its final use. There were levels of our game that greatly benefited from this philosophy like the Condemned District. However, the nature of Cyberpunk/Futuristic styles requires a heavy amount of bespoke kit pieces. This leads us to some serious issues with time and often it ended up in having to make multiple iterations of our levels. We used no prefabs for our game. Harry and I have a strong belief that everything should be made by hand. We think it gives our game a more human element and will hopefully serve as inspiration for others out there to make games from scratch.
Harry: One of the key features to making a large space with limited resources – time and people – was modularization. This came in the form of mod kits, kitbashing, and modular materials.
A lot of planning goes into the mod kits to make sure that we’re covering every piece we can imagine we’d use, as well as how each piece can be used in a variety of ways to almost seem like a completely different piece. But another thing to consider is that a mod kit means higher draw calls (more individual objects rendered on the screen) so finding that balance is extremely important.
The modular materials though saved us in the moments of extreme amounts of ‘stuff’ on the screen to keep draw calls down. In order to efficiently create the Junkyard, for example, I asked myself ‘what are the main surfaces seen here and in the compactor?’ Concrete, Painted/Rusting Metal, Dirty Ground, and Junk. In this post, I go into the details of what each one looks like and how they were created to be highly unified, but also easily iterative and changeable through the level! As this was the hardest space to keep in frame rate it was vital that planning and efficiency went into the creation of the level. More information on the development of the Junkyard space can be found here!
Making the Trailer
Harry: In making a trailer there are a series of questions you’ve got to really ask yourself. What is it you want to say in the trailer? What message do you want to convey? What do you want your players to have to find out when they play? What visual icons do you want to showcase? What’s the mood of this whole thing and how are you setting up the game? Then, beyond those questions, make your game look as fun as it really is. Show off what awesome or quirky things can happen during the play. You should be shouting at your viewer, “This could be YOU!” This can come from cinematic and gameplay, and we merged them both.
Once you know what you want out of your trailer, start looking at lots of trailers. Lots of them. Your favorite trailers, trailers you’ve never seen before, trailers that send shivers down your spine. What did they do right that you can now apply to the thing that people are going to judge your game by? Remember that most people will only see the trailer of your game and very few of those people will actually play it. This is your games first impression, make it good. Beyond that, the only programs we used were Unreal for recording video and Premiere for editing, but that’s not to say it can only be done in Premiere – whatever you’re most comfortable editing in will likely do.
Preston: Time vs. scale of the game was our biggest enemy. We had a grand total of 8 months to make the entire game with the expectation of having all of our environments done by the fourth month. It led to a lot of unhealthy situations between the both of us.
Harry: For a long portion of the development, probably two thirds, we had small enemies scattered throughout the world in order to have a pushing force forward and a constant threat. But the AI I’d been building in Blueprint just wasn’t working well. It eventually worked most of the time but never all the time. They were becoming a huge time sink just to get them sort of right and eventually we were told, “They just don’t make the game any more fun.” And that was a big moment, we knew we had to cut them. What that meant was we needed to now figure out our final section boss finale and how we communicate attacking with the shock ability – this is when the Security Drone came in as an actual Boss to fight. Building it was also a long process, but much more predictable and workable than tons of little guys flying around. Also, more fun to play, and far more rewarding to defeat!
Preston: Going from 4.19 to 4.20 in UE4 was something that we had considered doing for strong reasons. Firstly, 4.19 has a flaw with its lighting engine wherein light source length was broken and only worked vertically and couldn’t bake horizontally. This severely limited our designs when it came to lighting and scene composition. Despite our best efforts to fix the problem on the forums, we found out that Epic had no intentions of fixing this bug as they had moved onto 4.20. In our attempts to upgrade our game to 4.20 we ran through a myriad of errors and unfixable bugs. We ended up losing about a week of work, a huge hit to take. Reluctantly, we decided to stay in 4.19 and learned another important lesson about game development.
Changes in design for the City and Plaza plagued our development. Each level went through more iterations than I can imagine in order to better serve the game mechanics. Most of it was because I, as an artist, was never satisfied with the results that some of the spaces gave and it led to a lot of wasted time. It’s a lesson I think every game artist should learn: a game is never finished, only shipped. As a result, we’ve both come out with an understanding that sometimes you just gotta put it down and accept that it’s done. Finding that balance is key.
At E3, we had such an amazing reception for the game. People loved it and asked when it was going online and how much it would cost. Because this was a project done on restricted educational licenses we’re going to be releasing this current iteration of White Noise for free very soon! We believe we would like to continue the production in the near future once both of us learn more after spending time in the industry. Both of us were picked up by Microsoft at their 343 Industries and Turn 10 Studios, so we’re about to learn a hell of a lot.
If you’re interested in seeing the game but maybe not taking the time to play it, here’s a video of a full playthrough!