Preface: This is my first blog on TeamLiquid. Today I’ll be writing about a game I worked on called Perspective, which you can download for free on http://www.seewithperspective.com. If you haven’t played it yet, or at least seen a video I suggest you do so before reading. The rest of this post is a summary of my journey, from concept to finished product, of a game that I have spent countless hours working on and the process involved. I have nothing to gain monetarily from this as all the games described below were created as free to play student projects.
It all started nineteen months ago. Spring semester of my sophomore year at DigiPen had just ended. Having just finished my first year-long team game project I was quite disappointed with the result. The game, Barry’s Magical Spacecapade was complete, but nothing more than a generic 2D platformer with mediocre graphics and gameplay.
Barry’s Magical Spacecapade
I knew I was capable of doing better, and hoped to find a team that shared my dedication to making games. Junior year would be the most important year as a game team, as seniors are typically busy with internships or job hunting to work on another year-long project. The school had also just awarded their game of the year award to Nitronic Rush, easily the best DigiPen game to date in terms of gameplay, graphics, audio, and just about everything else. To say the bar had been raised was an understatement and the idea of creating something to surpass Nitronic was daunting.
During the final week of the semester, I asked one of my teammates what this plans were for the fall. He told me that he had already found a new team. Three of the four members of the team that created Nous, an IGF 2011 student game finalist and best sophomore game of the year, were already forming their new team for the fall. I realized this was the opportunity I was looking for and talked with them about joining. At first they weren’t too interested, telling me that the core team roles had already been filled and weren’t exactly sure what I would be doing. I suggested that I could work on tools, as it’s something I had enjoyed doing in the past. They had also seen the relatively impressive editor I had made for my freshman year project. A few days passed and I was informed that they would like to have me on board.
Design meetings began in the summer. Essentially the plan was to meet at school every week, whiteboard marker in hand, and come up with game ideas. The original plan was to make some sort of halloween themed racing game, however the idea didn’t evolve past a basic art direction before it was tossed aside. We talked about our goals and expectations for our Junior game and decided to make something that would be a worthy successor to Portal in terms of innovation and would have the potential of catching the interest of Valve and IGF. Two previous DigiPen teams were hired straight out of college for making Narbacular Drop and Tag, which later had their core mechanics incorporated in Portal 1 and 2 respectively. We hoped to follow in their footsteps.
We began brainstorming ideas for a 3D puzzle game. One suggestion involved using a camera and projector pair in order to project one section of the world into another. We decided that it was a neat idea, but way too similar to Portal. However, that led us to discuss various world-manipulating puzzle ideas and we eventually came up with the idea of generating a 2D world from the projection of a 3D first-person camera. The idea was intriguing, but incredibly difficult to visualize. At this point, the whiteboard became essentially useless for describing the gameplay, as it involved the manipulation of 3D shapes. We soon found ourselves moving our hands around like a viewfinder at different angles to demonstrate new puzzle ideas.
Since we would be building the game engine completely from scratch in C++ and DirectX, we didn’t have the luxury of prototyping and testing puzzles early to see if the game concept even worked or if the mechanic was too powerful. We decided to use Google Sketchup to at least build the levels so that we could visualize a 2D player navigating his way around a 3D environment.
Google Sketchup Level Prototype
It wasn’t until around October or so that the graphics and physics were in place to implement the projection of a 3D scene into 2D. The initial method for creating the 2D world involved manually projecting the visible scene geometry and using a triangle splitter to create convex shapes which could be used by the physics system. This method turned out to be too problematic as it was slow for real-time projection and there were a ton of edge cases (literally) that were difficult to deal with. The second and final approach involved assigning IDs to each of the objects and rendering the scene to a texture using those IDs. We were then able to use the texture as an extremely fine tile map for the 2D player.
For our initial school presentation, we wanted to disguise the game as a 2D platformer. A simple level was created with platforms arranged in a similar manner to that of the original Donkey Kong. However, once the player made it to the top and collected an object, the camera rotated, manipulating the previously disjoint and angled platforms to create a single path toward the goal and revealing that the world had been 3D all along. The final version of this level can be seen towards the beginning of the finished game.
Soon after this presentation, three artists, a level designer and a music composer were added to the team. The same artists and composer had previously done work for Nitronic Rush and once they saw the game prototype were immediately hooked. Our next major task was to come up with a concrete theme so that we could spend the next semester generating art assets. Finding a theme that was both interesting and made sense in terms of gameplay was one of the most difficult tasks encountered on this project. We eventually settled on a space theme because it was simple and gave us an explanation for having floating objects, something which at the time we thought would be important to level design. The space theme stayed throughout the remainder of the project, but the overall theme of the game evolved into something different entirely. More about that later.
The next milestone was “First Playable” and our goal was to create a full level which would teach the player different ways to use the perspective mechanic in order to reach a goal. The original levels are far from what’s seen in the final game, where each mechanic is split up into separate levels. Instead, we had a single level with multiple puzzles in sequence. It was incredibly difficult for players to understand. Oh, and we also had pipes!
Initially the 2D player would walk on black objects, usually pipes or panels affixed to walls. Additionally, the player would die to red objects, which were added after we realized that black objects were not enough to constrain player movement and would in fact simply allow them to use the blockades as new platforms from a different angle. After a few months of designing levels, we realized that using real objects to create puzzles and keeping the graphics simple enough to where the player could understand what was “black” or “red” was going to be a problem. We decided to fix both problems at once by creating new objects known internally as “hypercubes”’. These hypercubes would be blue and red boxes which could be scaled and placed anywhere in the levels as we saw fit. Because they were not a part of the actual world, the hypercubes could be placed anywhere in the level and still make sense, giving us the flexibility needed to create whatever puzzles we wanted. The hypercubes were also made to be visibly distinct so that the player would know for certain which objects were platforms and which objects would kill them.
At the end of my Junior year Perspective was already a solid student game, spanning over 20 levels and earning us DigiPen game of the year. I don’t recall us ever making a formal decision to name the game Perspective, it just sort of happened and the name stuck. By the end of the school year we already decided to spend another semester on the game and use the first few months of the summer break to prepare Perspective for PAX and various other competitions and shows.
About a month into summer, the team was caught entirely by surprise. The originally trailer for Perspective went viral, ranking #1 on the front page of reddit after being posted in /r/videos and eventually made its way onto various news sites. The part that surprised us the most was that we never actually released a “trailer”. The video was a gameplay clip from our final presentation at school and had been posted on the DigiPen youtube channel a week later. Either way, seeing the positive responses was extremely motivating and really helped us get the game to where it is today.
However, the game was far from complete in our eyes and after taking a break in August, we went straight back to work on the final version. While we kept the space assets and a handful of puzzles, just about everything else was created in the fall, including a new character, new levels, and the “Arcade” hub worlds.
The 2D character, nameless in the game but referred to internally as “the Avatar”, was initially a series of hand drawn sprite animations. His infamous jump animation was a hot topic among viewers of the trailer, noting the striking resemblance between his jump and that of another blue hero. Some even claimed that the animation was a direct spritesheet rip that had been drawn over.
Regardless, we knew the character had to be redone. This time we decided to go with a cleaner look by rendering the player in 3D and taking screen captures for each frame. Fun fact, this was actually the method used by Blizzard when making units and characters for the original Starcraft and Diablo II.
Top to Bottom: Megaman, Original Drawn Character, Final 3D Character
During the fall, most of the levels were redone from scratch. Puzzles were merged, reordered, split up, or removed altogether. Over two-hundred hours of formal and informal playtesting helped us iterate level design and fix bugs, leaving only the best for the final build. Over 100 level were created in total but the final game shipped with around twenty or so. We wanted to create a short but sweet gaming experience that slowly revealed different ways to use perspective and ended with a culmination of everything the player had learned.
The Arcade hub was actually more of a design choice rather than a thematic one. One of the problems we encountered with the earlier versions of Perspective was that each goal would be followed immediately by the next level. The game seemed repetitive and players had no way of knowing when it would end. We thought the hub world would be cool because not only does it provide the player with a sense of progression, but it also presents a subtle narrative and allows the 2D player to follow you seamlessly from one level to another.
The Arcade Hub
December was quickly approaching and one of our final tasks was to create an ending for the game. The goal was to create some sort of relationship between the player in real life and the 3D character, just as there’s a relationship between between the 3D character and the Avatar. I’m not going to spoil the ending for those who haven’t yet played the game, but I just want to say that it was impossible to test in a formal playtesting session. We took a huge gamble with the ending and if you feel like checking it out for yourself I guarantee that you will be pleasantly surprised.
I just want to conclude by saying that I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with a group of such talented and passionate individuals. Ever since I started using the Starcraft map editor in elementary school, it has been a goal of mine to create a game which could be enjoyed by thousands of players. It’s been over ten years since then and now I can finally say that I have accomplished my goal.
Please feel free to ask me anything!