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Game Design

Character Design Case Study: Mia

In this article, I’m going to discuss my process for developing and fleshing out characters. The example I’ll be using is Mia from Act II. There will be some mild spoilers for Acts I and II, so if you haven’t had the chance to play the game yet and intend to, be warned.

Mia is a character who first appears after the player completes their first major quest in Act II of Vacant Sky. She’s an interesting example because she wasn’t originally part of the story as I first envisioned it. Instead, she was introduced to fulfill a specific need I had in telling the story of Act II.

No Longer Human

Act II of Vacant Sky introduces the concept of an Archon, which is a person who has had another person’s soul grafted to theirs with magic. The exact mechanics of how they function are rather complicated, and I wanted to avoid inundating the player with exposition which they would probably forget. However, understanding what it means to be an Archon is crucial to following the story, so I needed some way to convey it to the player in a way they would engage with and care about.

I puzzled over this for a while when starting to write Act II, and eventually decided to illustrate rather than explain what an Archon is and what it means to live as one. To do that, I began to flesh out a character who would serve as a living embodiment of the concept of Archons.

I started by writing out the key ideas I needed to convey:

-Archons are (sometimes) immortal
-Archons can (sometimes) tap into supernatural powers
-Archons are unnatural
-Archons are prone to fits of ultra-violent rage
-The more an Archon taps into the power of their alternate persona, the more their state of mind deteriorates
-Archons and humans can’t coexist

The angle I decided to take was to have Mia serve as a snapshot of what Auria might look like in the near future. She’s a little older, more experienced, and most importantly, confident. At a time when Auria feels isolated and is struggling to find her place in the world, she encounters Mia, who has undergone many of the same hardships and seems to have everything figured out.

When the player first meets Mia, she is alone on the city streets at night, unkempt-looking, and astonishingly strong (having just single-handedly dispatched a group of thugs who had been harassing her). One of the first things she says to Auria after making sure that she’s unhurt is that she intends to follow the fleeing thugs to finish them off. When Auria demands to know how she can suggest such a thing, Mia is perplexed; to her, it’s the obvious thing to do: if someone’s causing you trouble, you should kill them to ensure they never bother you again.

Mia’s callous but rational thinking demonstrates her lack of respect for human life, a stark contrast from Auria’s idealism. Auria is appalled and afraid, unaware that later in the story, she’ll be required to make a very similar judgment call.

It’s clear from the first interaction with Mia that she lives outside of human society: she makes a distinction between herself and “them” when speaking and shows flagrant disregard for human laws and morality (she steals to eat and doesn’t bat an eye at killing someone when it’s convenient). She suggests that since they’re immortal, they have nothing to fear from humans, and that laws don’t apply to them; on the contrary, laws exist to protect humans from them.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

The introduction of Mia answers a key question on the player’s mind (what exactly is Auria?) but also suggests several more without directly asking them:

-How did Auria become an Archon? When did it happen?
-Why is Mia so convinced that Archons and humans are enemies?
-Does Auria’s mother know that she’s an Archon? Does she know something about what’s going on?

One of the best ways to manipulate the reader is to get them thinking about questions, because they’ll laser-focus in on those questions as they read/play in the hopes of finding answers. This is useful for two reasons: 1) it builds anticipation and 2) it allows you to manipulate expectations.

In this case, building anticipation was one of my key objectives, since the questions were all answered at the turning point of Act II, a major scene which I wanted to be one of the most shocking and memorable moments in the whole Contention saga. By teasing the player with a mixture of anticipation and dread, the mood was set for a grim revelation that would (hopefully) cause the player to feel the same shock and hopelessness as Auria.

The connection between Auria and Mia is key to Act II. Act II serves as a transition for Auria, putting her on track to become like Mia. So, one of the goals of Mia’s introduction was to suggest to the player what Auria would be like at the end of it, and to set the player up with the expectation that they would find out. This serves to indicate to the player what the conceit of the story is and helps to contextualize the events to follow.

Characterization Through Gameplay

One of the unique benefits of the game medium is the ability to convey subtext through a space that the player navigates. Act II of Vacant Sky introduces a day/night system where certain people and places are only available at certain times of day.

For most of the game, the nighttime segments are fairly useless: only one location can be accessed at night, no quests can be done at night, and all of the player’s party members are either at home or just outside. The streets are empty, too. There’s no one to talk to.

This changes in the intermission between major quests. Mia exclusively appears at night, establishing a dichotomy between herself and the rest of the cast. You can only find her when everyone else is gone, when you’re warned that it’s dangerous to go out alone. This serves to enhance Mia’s feeling of otherness, as she alone breaks the pattern that you’ve become accustomed to in playing the game.

As Mia is the only one who provides the player with direct answers about the mysteries of the story, the player is encouraged to be curious about her and anticipate each interaction with her. As it’s never explicitly stated when she’s around, this leads the player to go out into the night (in doing so, disobeying the advice of Auria’s friends - her anchors to human society) and seek her out. The player subconsciously directs Auria into becoming an entity who exists in the lonesome world of the night, just like the mysterious girl they’re pursuing.

The second time Auria meets Mia, she witnesses her Archon powers go out of control, nearly causing the death of one of her friends. This serves as a warning of what will happen if Auria begins relying on her Archon powers too much herself (foreshadowing the ill-fated finale of Act II). However, Auria’s Archon powers are extremely useful in combat and become even stronger as the game progresses. This encourages the player to act out Auria’s part: you’re warned that her powers are evil and dangerous, but they’re just so convenient and satisfying to use that you can’t help relying on them more and more.

In the last stretch of Act II, you finally get Mia in your party. Although it’s normally a rule of the game that everyone in your party is always the same level, an exception is made for Mia, who is always 3 levels higher than Auria. On top of that, her stat build will always be the perfect complement to Auria’s, making it so that the two of them form a brutally efficient team. Her role in battle reaffirms her role in the story as Auria’s closest ally and the one who’s most like her. With Mia at your side, you can take down anyone. You’re not afraid, even when you fight a group of five soldiers equipped with Counter. The easy triumph over enemies that had once been extremely difficult helps put the player in Auria’s head; for the first time, she feels safe and in control, able to do anything with Mia at her side.

One Last Subversion

The final segment with Mia comes with one more departure from the patterns that the game has established. It takes place at twilight, the first time it’s been anything other than day or night. The track that plays in this section is “Last Night of Summer,” which previously played during the nighttime segment of Act I, a reminder that you’re still partially within the domain of the night.

The twilight of East Naven serves to illustrate that Auria (an entity of the day) and Mia (an entity of the night) have come together in the middle. The events of the game have dragged Auria toward Mia’s darkness, but at the same time, interacting with Auria, her first true friend, has pulled Mia out of the lonely emptiness of the night toward the domain of the day.

The twilight is calming, safe, and a little melancholy. There are people around, but the muted colors and somber music suggest that this isn’t quite the upbeat, welcoming world that the day normally is. It’s here, in the twilight, that Auria and Mia reach their resolve about what to do with their lives.

(The events of Act II’s finale, of course, wipe away the twilight and replace it with a fourth rendition of East Naven, barren and hopeless. The twilight period is never seen again in Act III: There can be no middle of the road.)

This was a little long-winded, but I thought I’d give an insight into how I develop characters and how I try to convey their characterization through the player’s interactions with the game. Hopefully, you found it interesting.


Day of Contention 2014

Hello everyone!

Sorry for the long wait, but this year’s preparations took a lot longer than we expected. Today, we celebrate five years since the release of Vacant Sky Act I. It’s hard to believe that so much time has passed since then. Since Act I, Project BC has:

-Released several more games, including Act II, Act III, Act I+, Act II+, The Vestibule, Finding Eden, and Encarmine
-Funded the development of Vacant Sky Awakening Act I through Kickstarter
-Expanded to nearly every platform under the sun with the Awakening project
-Incorporated as a proper business
-Quadrupled (!) in staff size

Today, we celebrate not only five years of Vacant Sky, but five years of Project BC. Before we dive into today’s Contention announcements, let’s take a look at what to expect from us going forward.

New products in 2014

2014 will be the first year that we offer products other than just games. We’ll also be offering middleware for other game developers, both technical and graphical. The Metis RPG framework that underpins Vacant Sky Awakening is currently the largest middleware product we’re working on, but it will probably not be ready for market until well after VSA Act I is out. In the very near future, you should expect some art assets, both 2D and 3D, to hit the Unity Asset Store.

Status of the Complete Edition

The Day of Contention is a time of endings and beginnings. Five years ago today, we saw the cessation of Auria’s old life and the beginning of a new one. The Vacant Sky Complete Edition is an extension of her journey, in higher quality and better continuity with the rest of the series. Currently, two of the three episodes have been released.

For those looking forward to the end of the Complete Edition, I have good news and other news.

The good news is that Act III CE will be released before this time next year, and the Complete Edition will finally be finished for good.

The other news is that the form it’s going to be released in might not be what you expect. Due to technical issues with the project, we’ll be overhauling the format of Act III CE. In order to give closure to the story and to make good on our word to finish the Complete Edition, the updated story will still be intact as well as all of the choices and endings, but the battles and exploration are being removed from the final episode. It was a difficult decision to make, but due to the enormous amount of technical debt the project has accumulated over the years, it is the only way we’ll be able to finish it this year.

Hopefully, our final announcement of the day will make up for any disappointment this may cause.

Death & Rebirth

For the past few years, I’ve always been personally involved in directing two projects at a time: a main project (VS1, and now VSA) and a secondary project in preproduction. With the conclusion of the Complete Edition, I’ll be bumping up a new project into preproduction. Although I typically don’t like to announce a project so early into development, it would have to be either today or next year’s Day of Contention, and I figured the five year anniversary of Contention would be the perfect opportunity.

Since the inception of Vacant Sky, we’ve come a long way, both technically and artistically. Although originally, the plan was for Awakening to be a stepping stone into the rest of the series, it seems I was (as always) naive in thinking it would be a project that would be over quickly. Awakening is eight (or is it nine?) acts to Contention’s three, each much more in-depth than the entire Contention project combined. Vacant Sky Awakening is a series unto itself, and it would be a shame for it to put the original series on pause for years when it was originally conceived of as a way to bring in more fans to it. And, as many questions as Awakening raises, it also brings answers. Many answers. Answers a lot sooner than I intended to give them.

Having had time to reflect on this, I’ve revised my vision of Awakening’s role in the future of Project BC. Instead of delaying the original series until its completion, I intend to alternate between volumes of Awakening and of the original Vacant Sky. This way, answers in Awakening will properly coincide with the questions posed by the story of the present era.

Following the conclusion of the Complete Edition, we will be relaunching the present era series in full 3D.

I’m excited to show the new design of Auria Edith, which will be debuting in Death & Rebirth, the first installment of Vacant Sky Quickening.

Thanks so much to everyone who has stood with us over the years and helped us become the company we are today. I hope you’re as excited about the future as we are. Look forward to another awesome year with us.


Day of Contention 2013

On this day, four years ago, the original version of Vacant Sky Act I was released. In those four years, we've come a long way, with the subsequent releases of Acts II and III as well as the recent Complete Edition releases of Acts I+ and II+. 2012 was a good year for us, with two major releases and the release of our first (small) commercial game, Encarmine. In this past year, we brought the community together with the launch and wild success of the Vacant Sky: Awakening Kickstarter.

But 2013 is going to be our best year yet. Let's take a look at what's in store.

To facilitate the development of Vacant Sky: Awakening, we've been hard at work on developing our own game engine, (tentatively) called Metis2D. As we near completion of the engine's core features and continue our testing of it, we're happy to announce the first game to be released with the new engine.

One of our earlier microgames, The Vestibule, has been successfully ported to Metis and runs like a charm. We expect to rerelease The Vestibule on new platforms, namely the Ouya. The Vestibule will be available for free as one of the Ouya's launch titles.

Vacant Sky: Awakening
Unsurprisingly, the majority of our efforts right now are concentrated on VSA. Work has been coming along at a steady pace. It's still a little early to show anything new from the game yet, but we're still hoping to manage a release before the summer. But although there's nothing to see, there is plenty to listen to:


The soundtrack for episodes 1 and 2 of Vacant Sky: Awakening is now available for purchase! Kickstarter backers who pledged at least $25 will shortly be receiving download codes via email.

Thanks for being patient with us as we go through the roughest part of the development cycle. Please look forward to a release of Episode 1: Journey of the Black Knight in the coming months.

Ars Harmonia
Those of you who were following the Vacant Sky companion story, Ars Harmonia, have probably been wondering about the status and future of the series. For the foreseeable future, our efforts remain primarily concerned with the development of Awakening, which resulted in it being pushed to the backburner.

However, a chance encounter with some old friends has brought about a change in fortune for Ars Harmonia. Ardent Blue Productions expressed interest in doing a game adaptation of the story and I'm excited to say that we've entrusted it into their capable hands. Although we're not directly involved in the game's production, I'm confident in their ability to bring the story to life.

It's still too early to estimate a release, but look forward to more news in the latter half of the year. You can check out the RMN profile for the game here: http://rpgmaker.net/games/4926/


Thanks for sticking with us for another year! We're hoping to make this the best yet and we hope you're as excited about it as we are!


Vacant Sky Create & Win Contest Results!

Hi everyone! Sorry for the delay in getting the results out, but we’ve had our hands full working on Awakening lately. Without further adieu, I’d like to announce the winners of the Vacant Sky Create & Win contest!

3rd place: Lauren

Lauren’s entry definitely wins the award for most creative. Props to her for the only Ars Harmonia entry!

In her words:
Patterns were all figured out by myself, and I’m rather proud of the detail work I put into her. The hakama tie as they should, the obi is textured like in the original concept art, and the haori is completely removable and has sleeves that resemble the real thing. Heck, I even included the French braid-ish bit to her bangs.

2nd place: Adoxographist

In second place, we’ve got a lovely portrait of Vacant Sky: Awakening protagonist Dakura by Adoxographist!

But either way, my idea for the entry was to make an old school vanity portrait for this particular character, since he’s a noble and would maybe be the sort of guy to commission that sort of thing!

The idea behind it is clever and very appropriate, especially as Act II+ of Contention actually added paintings of past inhabitants to Maladorr Manor.

1st place: Redemptiondot

Our first place winner is Redemptiondot with this lovely fanart of Vacant Sky: Awakening heroine, Sarian! We particularly liked this entry for how much character it shows. Sarian got quite a bit of love in this contest, receiving nearly as much fanart as did Auria, which was quite a surprise! The Awakening cast barely scraped by with better representation than the Contention cast; it was pretty close.

Thanks to everyone for entering! There were quite a few entries and judging was very difficult. I hope you had as much fun creating your entries as we did judging them, and that you’ll consider joining us again if we hold a contest again in the future!


Create and Win Contest!

Cross-posted from Kate's blog:
Hey guys! You like getting free stuff, right!? Like music and games? Well, read on…

So to celebrate that Vacant Sky: Awakening is now over 100% funded on Kickstarter (thank you so much to everybody who pledged and signal boosted!) we are running a competition!

The prizes:

Third place
-A digital copy of “Sounds of Contention,” the Vacant Sky soundtrack

Second place
-A pre-release digital copy of the new Vacant Sky: Awakening Episode 1 soundtrack (Here’s a sampler)
-A digital copy of “Sounds of Contention,” the Vacant Sky soundtrack

First place
-A digital copy of Vacant Sky: Awakening Episode 1 (once released)
-Chance to design a character to appear as an NPC in Vacant Sky: Awakening

-A pre-release digital copy of the new Vacant Sky: Awakening Episode 1 soundtrack
-A digital copy of “Sounds of Contention,” the Vacant Sky soundtrack

How to enter:

Send in something Vacant Sky related, art, fiction, music remix, omake comic, fangame, cosplay or prop photo… Pretty much anything! to create@projectbc.net (link or attachment). It can be from Awakening, Contention, or even Ars Harmonia (free web novel).

REFERENCE MATERIAL: There’s a bunch of official character art and illustrations from Contention and Awakening here and here.

DEADLINE: 11:59 PM Eastern time on February 6th, 2013.

Good luck!


2013: The Year of Vacant Sky!

2012 has been a pretty great year for Project BC. We saw our first Android game release (The Vestibule) and released our first commercial title (Encarmine). On top of that, the first two episodes of Contention's Complete Edition were finally released!

But 2013 is going to have a lot more exciting things in store. We'll be kicking off the year with the Awakening Kickstarter and shortly after that, we'll be releasing the Complete Edition Act III. On top of that, we're hoping to release at least the first two episodes of Awakening (and maybe more?) as well as whatever microgames we happen to put together.

Stay tuned and thanks for sticking with us for so long!



Vacant Sky Complete Edition: Act II+ Now Available


Note to players of the original: If you want to see only new content, save recruiting Vel for last.

At last, the (remastered) second chapter of the Vacant Sky saga is here! The main download has been updated and now includes both Act I+ and Act II+, so go ahead and download it if you're either new to the series or just looking to continue with Act II+.

For those who have been holding off on starting the series, this is a perfect place to start! Act I+ is a fresh start and expects no past knowledge of the series. It brings in significant improvements to the story, graphics, and gameplay.

Note: You might want to keep some backup saves while playing Act II+. The story branches significantly as a result of some changes in the game and some choices cannot be unmade.

I hope you guys enjoy playing it!


Testing a branching story is hard. Help?

One last call for more beta testers for Act II+. Because of the huge amount of branching in the story, it is very, very difficult to test everything. Every little bit helps. If you're interested in helping out with testing, please drop me a line.



Act II+: Seeking beta testers!

It's that time again! (or just about)

It's not necessary that you've played Act I+ before, but it would certainly be better if you have. If you haven't, let me know and I'll hook you up with a completed save file.

Post here or PM me if you'd like to help out with testing.