Inside the ever-shifting levels of Runic


Hob is an action-adventure title in the vein of Zelda: A Link to the Past. This latest release from Runic Games (Torchlight) encourages you to solve environmental puzzles with subtle lighting cues and camera direction, while gradually feeding you bits of narrative that pull you in deeper.

Gamasutra had the pleasure of talking to Runic’s Patrick Blank, game director and lead level designer of Hob, about the well-received game in a recent Twitch stream. We’ve transcribed some of the more interesting passages of the conversation.

You can watch the stream embedded above, or click here to see it. And for more developer insights, editor roundtables and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel.

STREAM PARTICIPANTS:

Patrick Blank, game director and lead level designer of Hob, at Runic

Wonder Russell, marketing manager at Runic

Bryant Francis, contributing editor at Gamasutra

Bryant Francis: World shifting is a core selling point of the game, the idea that the world will change and shift in major ways based on your actions. As one of the chief architects of this world, how did you build it? What are the practical challenges of building a game that can be entirely reconfigured? It sounds almost like you have to think through what it is intended to be, then work backwards from there, to change the world so that it can be put back into place by the player. Is that on point or no?

“On Torchlight II, the art had to be modular so we could quickly build things. And that carried over with our artists when we started Hob. We wanted the world to be a huge factor. We came up with several different ways that we could do shifting and rotations. We knew we’d have all these puzzle pieces that needed to fit together so that we could do this.”

Patrick Blank: Yeah, it is. A lot of it comes down to just the tools you have, specifically the way the art was built, we were really smart, because coming off Torchlight II the art had to be a certain way, to be modular so we could quickly build things. And that’s kind of carried over with our artists when we started Hob, we knew we had to have all these puzzle pieces, everything needed to fit together so that we could do this.

But we were talking about how we want the world to be different, we want the world to be a huge factor, how are we going to do this? We came up with several different ways that we could do shifting, and puzzle pieces and rotations and stuff like that, and we wanted to go for more of the bigger moments, try to sell that. And those are difficult to do.

Another goal is, always make the player feel small. You want the world to feel huge. Figuring out where we can do that and where those fit into the world… there are certainly some levels that are showcases, because they’re rather large, but you don’t want that to be a thing throughout, so you have smaller ones, and making those fit in with particular puzzles, or sections that you complete so that it feels like a satisfying finish to an area. Those are usually something that we identify early on in the level that we are making, and so we’ll build everything around it to support and showcase it.

With the pieces we have, it’s pretty easy to lay out, but it comes in the details later, of selling it, with the timing, the particles and the deco, and the other things that are going off around it. It’s been a thing that we’ve been evolving as we’ve been going through development, to try to figure out better and easier ways to do it, and how it could fit into the game. It’s something that people really live seeing, and it’s one of the more satisfying elements of the game, when you finish something that transforms.

Francis: What it reminds me of is, there’s a level in Dishonored II called Clockwork Mansion. It’s a level that changes shape and it’s very striking. This entire game works in that fashion. When we talked to the designers of that game, they mentioned designing the level so that it makes physical sense. There’s no trickery, like if a beam slides in and out it’s actually rendered at all times, in or out, it never disappears into nothingness or clips into anything. Were you interested in achieving that level of weird physical fidelity in the game, even though the player doesn’t often see it, or did you have to use some level design tricks to get everything to connect just right?

“We didn’t want to take control away too much, or cut to a different camera and make it feel like it’s not happening right in front of you. We don’t really do cutscenes. That was a big goal of ours. When you see an entire zone rise up in front of you, you can walk on it. That’s all real. It was a goal from the beginning to be able to do that.”

Blank: A little bit of both. We definitely wanted everything to feel rounded, and as real in this game, as possible. So the elements do fit together really well, because of the way the art is made.

That Dishonored level is nuts. It’s gorgeous! It’s awe-inspiring what they did with that level. They’re going beyond just one transformation, they’re doing all sorts of really neat stuff. We definitely wanted ours to feel grounded within the world. It’s a bit of having really solid art, and tools to do that with.

There is some trickery here and there where we really want it to happen, but we wanted to happen in real time, in front of the player. We don’t really do cutscenes when any of that happens. A lot of them, people don’t realize, you can run around on them when they’re happening. To most people it feels like a cutscene so they just stand still to watch it, but you can run around on those large things while they’re shifting.

We didn’t want to take control away too much, or cut to a different camera, and make it feel like it’s not happening right in front of you. That was a pretty big goal of ours. When you see the forest area, when you see an entire zone rise up in front of you and then you can walk on it, that’s all real. And it was a goal from the beginning, to be able to do that.

Francis: I once heard a game critic say about top-down games that there was a problem with them, that you spent so much time staring at the ground. Like we are here (in the stream) following Hob on his adventure, and sometimes the camera takes us to the right place, but this critic says for games like strategy games, for games like Diablo or whatever, they said that essentially you’re staring at hard rock. So what do you think about that, how do you make staring at rock interesting and make it narrative-rewarding?

Blank: We have some experience with that for the first two Torchlight games. I think in Torchlight 2 we started to do it, not with the player traversing vertically, but hinting at it with drop-offs and depth in the dungeons. And, again, a bit goal with Hob from early on was I wanted the player to feel small, so that the world feels huge.

“We do have a lot of verticality in Hob. We do certain camera pull-outs and pans to show you certain things as well, and we’ve spread out enough vista points throughout, so it doesn’t feel like you’re always looking at the ground.”

Like what you’re doing right now in the game while we’re streaming, you can see down off the current ledge. We do have a lot of verticality in Hob, because myself and level designer Rick Lesley, we wanted to play with that as level designers, especially with the different types of navigation that we have. Because of that, the levels naturally build out this depth that breaks up the ground, so you’re not always staring at the ground.

We do certain camera pull-outs and pans to show you certain things as well, and with our vista points, we’ve spread out throughout the game enough points that we’re changing to shifting things to show you that, so it doesn’t feel like you’re always looking at the ground. In combination with a lot of the depth we’re doing in the levels, especially outside there’s cliffs, not only to show you decoration out there but to show you parts of the world you’ll get to later, so we’re hinting at that. So it’s kind of the flow of the depth that we’re doing, in the verticality in Hob, alleviates a lot of the feeling of staring at the ground.

Francis: Yes I think you’re definitely right, that lends an atmosphere of depth in 3D space, the world always feels far beyond reach whenever I’m playing. I can’t conceive of how it’ll come together in the end, it seems so large.

Francis: Speaking of large, the video game market these days is real big, and real crowded. I wanted to get your thoughts on what it’s like to put out a game in 2017. I’m struck by the fact that Hob is $20, just like Torchlight 2 was five years ago, and that’s a really compelling entry point into a really crowded market, but I can’t imagine that it’s been easy, even this early in, to get attention for the game and help it stand out, when there’s so much good stuff coming out.

“It was really astonishing to see the difference between when we had done press five years ago versus now. You see graphs about how many games release on Steam every day now compared to even a couple of years ago, it is so much harder to stand out.”

Russell: Yeah, it’s been super challenging. The landscape has changed a lot, we see influencers in Twitch streamers, has become the new form of word-of-mouth. I wouldn’t say journalism, but when I get the PAX spreadsheet of who is attending, I remember the first time when we were going back to PAX and announcing Hob, I was like, “Why are all these YouTube people on my press list!” (laughs) Obviously I knew why they were there, but it was really astonishing to see the difference between when we had done press five years ago versus now, and then you see graphs about how many games release on Steam every day now compared to even a couple of years ago, it is so much harder to stand out.

And we’ve just tried to show as much as we could without giving away the story of the game, try to make any updates we had for our fans more interactive and content-rich. You can’t be like, just, “Here’s a game! We’re making it! It’s cool!” What are people doing to push the envelope? We’re a small studio, we’re like 24 people with contractors so we don’t have the biggest marketing budget, so trying to do more with less, trying to be more inventive and more creative, find more ways to get to those people. We get to them through the internet. (laughs)

Blank: Yeah, we rely pretty heavily on word-of-mouth, so we just try to make the best game we can, something that stands out from everything else, and hope that people enjoy it and spread the word about it.

Russell: Exactly, spread the word, and that, coupled with just how important it was to build a new audience for Hob, to find the type of players who were saying, “This is the game I’ve been waiting for!” They want that sort of Zelda puzzle/platformer experience, and they want to be able to play on their computer or on the couch. Us going to shows were huge, we went to the PAXes and Gamescoms, and it was so important because people who had maybe heard of our studio but had not played the Torchlight games became that new audience that we were building.

We also noticed a huge uptick in younger fans, and women being way more interested in Hob, that helped us. It’s so hard to dial in who your ideal gamer is. “People who like games, I guess?” It was really great to be able to know that you could still go to a show and figure out who this game is really resonating with.

Francis: Someone in chat, probably a fan, says something nice about the price. They say twenty dollars feels very underpriced. That’s an interesting jumping-off point, if you can, how does Runic as a studio assign value to its work? It’s such a weird, beautiful thing. “How much does this thing, that we spent years of our lives making, worth?”

“It’s never a discussion of do we want to make a $20 game or a $60 game, we always make the best game we can, and with Torchlight 2 and Hob, we made way bigger games than we anticipated on making. But there’s something magical about the twenty-dollar price tag. “

Blank: It’s never a discussion what type of game, do we want to make a $20 game or a $60 game, we always make the best game we can, and with Torchlight 2 and Hob, we made way bigger games than we anticipated on making. But there’s something magic about the twenty-dollar price tag. It kind of felt like it’s a good offer for what we’ve got. You’re getting more value than what you’re paying for. We believe in the content that we’re giving you, but it’s kind of a no-brainer, right?

Russell: It feels good to kind of be true to, “Our games are twenty bucks!” That honestly feels good for us developers. Obviously things are changing, it’s bizarre to receive feedback saying “This should be a thirty-dollar game!” There’s also that little bit of inherent risk with a new IP, where, if it’s ten dollars is the difference between adoption and not, and then I think [Runic Games President Marsh Lefler] put it really well the other day [in our Reddit AMA the other day], we want people to think they’re getting more value than what they think twenty bucks should buy them. That’s such a good feeling for everyone, “And it’s a good buy too!”

Francis: It’s interesting, the notion that you would convey an aspect of your studio’s spirit, or its philosophy through its price, it’s something that makes a lot of sense but it’s not something we talk about very often. Something we do talk about with other game developers is visibility, what is the best way to get your particular type of game, your size of game, your price of game out in front of the audience that will appreciate it the most. I couldn’t quite tell, what worked best for you? Was it going through influencers, people on YouTube and Switch, or was it going to shows, or was it Discord and Reddit, what did you see the most success with, in terms of attracting and cultivating an audience?

Russell: I’d say shows continue to be huge for us in terms of marketing, that’s the best place to get the game right into the hands of the end users, the players, and we’re not only trying to make relationships with those players, we’re like “Check back on our blog, we’re putting things out constantly!”

For more developer insights, editor roundtables and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel.



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