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Vacant Sky Awakening demo to be playable at LICAF!

If you happen to be in or around England this weekend, consider dropping by the Lakes International Comic Art Festival to check out a publicly playable demo of Vacant Sky Awakening! This will be the first time the game has been playable since the Kickstarter.

Art director Kate Holden will be there running the demo. Stop by and say hi!

Progress Report

Awakening Wednesday: Character Portraits Process Video

(Cross-posted from the official blog)

Kate here with this week’s Awakening Wenesday! I decided to do something a little different and post a video of making character portraits for the game. Might be useful or at least informative!

Progress Report

Awakening Wednesday: Maladorr Manor

(Cross-posted from the official blog.)

Bishop here with this week’s update! This time, I’ve got some new screenshots to show off, showing the current state of Maladorr Manor. The Maladorr estate is a returning location which was a (rather notorious) dungeon in Contention. This time, there are far fewer monsters and many more parties. As the home of the Maladorr family, it is a common site for social functions in Viadahn.

As the childhood home of Dakura and Vanora, it is also where the story of Awakening begins.

Much more of the manor is explorable in Awakening than in Contention. Although you only spend a brief time there in Act I, it will be a returning location throughout the story where several key events will take place.

We’re still working hard on polishing it up so keep in mind that what we’re showing so far is still very much a work in progress and you should expect it to continue evolving as we get closer to release.

Thanks for tuning in to this week’s update!

Game Design

Awakening Wednesday: Meet the Maladorrs

(Cross-posted from the original blog post here.)

Hello! Bishop here again this week with a look at some of the recurring NPCs you’ll be interacting with in VSA. Namely, we’ll be looking at some of the members of the Maladorr family.

Where it had been largely absent as a factor in Contention, family plays a big role in the story of Awakening. House Maladorr, as one of the five noble families of the Orkan Federation, is a key fixture in Orkan politics and in shaping the course of history.

Some names might be familiar to players of Contention!

Kortas Maladorr is the head of House Maladorr and holds the title of Count of Avelis. Although he had a reputation for recklessness in his youth, he later mellowed out and is now known for his ponderous and inward-facing policies, in sharp contrast to his own father’s hawkish expansionism when he ruled.

Kortas is the father of Dakura and Vanora and was a life-long friend of Sarian’s father, Vaius Monarim, until his untimely passing. Since then, he has been fiercely protective of Sarian and welcomes her to Maladorr Manor frequently, where they research heretical magic against the church’s teachings.

It’s this disregard for the church’s authority that will ignite the story of Awakening.

Lorria Maladorr, Countess of Avelis, is the wife of Kortas and mother of Dakura and Vanora. Raised in a time of bitter infighting among her birth family, she was forced to learn to navigate the teeming (and occasionally brutal) underworld of Orkan politics at a young age, a skill that would serve her well upon moving to the powderkeg city of Viadahn, the nerve center of House Altaya’s influence, upon marrying Kortas.

Though she has a gentle and polite demeanor, she’s one of the most valuable assets at the Noble Council’s negotiation table for her no-nonsense attitude and staunch resilience to opposition.

As the one who manages the finances of House Maladorr, which governs the federation’s largest standing army, she has earned the nickname “the Bursar of Battle” for her at times miraculous ability to balance the budget of the military and pull together the funds to manage its often grueling war efforts.

Vanora Maladorr is Dakura’s elder sister. She was originally intended to succeed Kortas as the head of House Maladorr until Dakura’s birth, when it was decided that he would become the heir instead. She takes after their mother more than Dakura and has proven herself prodigious at the art of diplomacy, although Lorria sometimes fears that she lacks the ruthless edge needed to stay ahead in the cutthroat political climate of the federation.

Vanora is well-spoken and professional and proves an invaluable asset to Sarian’s company on the voyage south. Though Dakura is tactful and charismatic, he has also inherited their father’s headstrong nature, occasionally requiring Vanora’s quick thinking and diplomacy to defuse dangerous situations.

She and Dakura have a close filial relationship and she has been friends with Korelli for as long as she can remember.

Vanora will join the party as a noncombatant.


Awakening Wednesday: Evolution of Character Portraits

(Cross-posted from the official blog.)

Hi it’s Kate again this week! I’m currently busy working on character portraits for the dialogue segments of the game, so I thought it’d be interesting to show the evolution of the portrait style.

Our initial decision to use portraits visual novel style was one made by looking at the skillset and technology our team had at the time we started making the game. We’ve come along a way since then, but at the time, it was really the only feasible way to tell this complex story with lots of characters expressing lots of emotions with a limited team with a lead artist mostly grounded in 2D (my professional background before Project BC being largely comics and 2D illustration).

One of the earliest attempts I can find around interestingly shows an experiment with a character front-on, like Phoenix Wright or some dating sims:

Now, one of the main issues with this format is that it works great when characters are talking to your protagonist and feels very immediate and personal, but it doesn’t work so well as soon as you have to depict different characters talking to each other, which is quite common in VSA. In fact, characters have relationship values and character building events with each other which may not even involve Dakura at all, so it was necessary to reconsider the style to better accommodate the style of the storytelling.

After deciding on 3/4 view characters, I experimented with some different styles:

I call the first one “shoujo Dakura” because of the shoujo manga feel of the fine lines and soft colours. I was trying to evoke the feeling of the portraits from the original Vacant Sky Contention, which are very soft and pretty. When it comes down to it though, while our audience is mostly female, it’s still pretty mixed, but more than that… it’s just not really my style at all, My work is strongest when I’m working with a more solid feeling. In fact at this stage I was really still holding back on the kind of chunky lines I like to work with.

The portraits that were the “final” versions for a long time looked like this:

Because the game was set to be told entirely in Visual Novel format, I felt it was important to show a good view of the characters, so they go right from head to mid-thigh. This was…not my best idea ever due to the enormous workload it created. Every expression for every character required a new almost full body drawing. Another issue with these was that for promotions and pitches, the main characters had to be rushed through first, so we ended up with a situation where the main characters weren’t as well drawn as some of the NPCs done further down the line. You can definitely see how the drawing on Sarian doesn’t compare well to her original concept illustration, and that Naora looks stylistically slightly different, having been drawn months later.

Between making these characters and now, we discovered techniques and technology that made 3D models possible. Suddenly showing the entire body on the sprites was really no longer a huge issue. Feeling dissatisfied with the old portraits, I brought up the notion of redrawing them, this time with a Persona esque view limited to just head to chest. The test images came out great. I’d estimate they’re about three times faster to create than the old portraits were too, so massively more efficient! With less rush and pressure, I’m able to put move love into the portraits, so they come out more polished. Well, that and I’m just generally a better artist than I was when we started out here.

There are some little touches of polish here to the shading and colours that would have been a pain to add on the more arduous larger portraits. Well, that and maybe I wouldn’t have even known how to do this stuff efficiently back then! I’m pretty pleased with how they look.

Another cool thing to note about this image before I sign off here. This is an actual screenshot in the game engine, it’s not a mockup like all those previous images! We hope to show you more images from in-game soon!

Game Design

Awakening Wednesday: Relationships and Gameplay

(Cross-posted from the Project BC blog)

Hello again! Bishop here with this week’s Awakening Wednesday update. I was hoping to have something graphical to show off this week, but it’s not quite done yet, so I’ll be talking a bit about the gameplay.

The topic this week is relationships and how they relate to gameplay.

Although you play as Dakura by default in Vacant Sky Awakening, events marked with the heraldry of another character allow you to change to that character’s perspective and make decisions as that character.

Decisions made while controlling another character affect how that character develops and interacts with others in the future, even when you’re not controlling them. In addition, the decisions you make while controlling other characters determines what skills they will learn. However, the most important use of character events is deciding who that character will spend their time with.

Most character spaces provide an opportunity to spend the event with someone else. This boosts the relationship between the two of them, which is crucial because…

In Vacant Sky Awakening, there are no levels or experience points.

Each pair of characters has a bidirectional relationship. The strength and nature of that relationship dictates how well those two characters perform together in battle. Each relationship confers certain benefits upon the people in it as long as both people are in battle together. After all, success in battle isn’t all about how talented you are as a fighter, but how well you work together with your allies.

Thus, the most effective team is often the one with the strongest relationships. Although characters who join you later in the game, like Naora, have powerful stats and abilities, you might want to consider visiting character spaces and hanging out with them to help them get to know the rest of your team better before chucking them into battle.

As a result, choosing how to spend your character events is an important decision. Do you want to bolster one relationship in particular? If so, you could spend all of Korelli’s events with Sarian and all of Sarian’s with Korelli, which will make them a powerful team, but you’ll be in trouble if you ever need to swap one of them out of the party. In addition, you might decide to hold off on using your character events until new party members have joined so that you can work better with them instead.

One of the primary goals of Vacant Sky Awakening is to make it a role-playing game in the purest sense of the word. Not only do you make decisions as Dakura, but you also direct the decision-making, growth, and relationships of everyone in the party. We’re putting a lot of work into making these choices an intrinsic and personal aspect of the game and hope that you enjoy seeing how it plays out!

Game Design

Awakening Wednesday: Creating Sarian Monarim

(Cross-posted from a post by Kate on the Project BC blog.)

Welcome to Awakening Wednesday, a new feature where we will dedicate the midweek to giving you behind the scenes info on Vacant Sky Awakening from the various members of Project BC!

This week, I'm up! I'm Kate, I'm primarily the art director, character designer and character artist among other things. I'm here to talk about the interesting and convoluted design process behind Sarian Monarim, a party member in our upcoming release.

From the get-go, I knew I wanted Sarian to look very distinctive because she's such an interesting person. She's got a lot of conflicting sides to her character; she's one of your hardest hitting partymembers, but she's physically frail and must walk with a cane, she's highly intelligent but has an underlying emotional naivete, she's both the most serious partymember and yet also one of the wittiest, she's wise and educated but she's still a teenager, she's a young maiden and a noblewoman but she loves to mess with the system. The nice thing about working in a small team is being able to really get to know the character you're designing before you put pencil to paper.

For me, a pencil and paper is generally where I go when I'm brainstorming, and I usually do it sat on the floor because hey, that's how I learned to draw as a baby, why not!?

Sarian's first design. Wow this feels a long time ago now. She was the only party member in the first part who didn't have any old design ideas from Bishop lying around. Believe it or not, originally Korelli had that hairstyle. I was confident that giving this short, hard cut to Sarian would be a good idea. Korelli was instead given a cute, soft ponytail. Many of the design elements were in place for what would be her design for a long time and even up until the present even at this early stage; the snake cane, the mantle and hood, the choker, long gloves and, of course, an ankle length dress; I knew I wanted an ankle-length dress because I have always imagined Sarian's legs, as well as being weak, may be a little warped or maybe just very bony and she doesn't like people seeing them.

I also noted down things I didn't like; those clumpy boots, the belt that ruins the flow, and the stupid idea of a character who isn't very mobile wielding a knife of all things.

Sarian's "final" design as it stood for a very long time. I think it's a nice one! I'd like to reuse elements of this sometime down the line. Sarian's colour scheme uses green and purple; typically villainous colours. A nice thing with Vacant Sky Awakening is that a major theme is "you play the villain", so the party have some villainous looking elements to them. Except Korelli of course, who is just dangerously adorable. The Orkan clothing is largely influenced by Regency and Victorian period British fashion with some Fantasy elements thrown in. I'm a huge dork when it comes to clothing from different time periods, cultures and subcultures, and tend to do a lot of research and collecting of references from all over the place.

Sarian's image from the Kickstarter campaign. The only major change here is that she's lost her sleeves. The more I drew Sarian, the more skinny and angular she got. I really wanted to subvert that whole idea of the "ill heroine" in games, they usually don't look ill and their illness inconveniences them in no way at all physically, they just randomly cough up blood or faint at plot points. Sarian is pale, gaunt, bony, physically weak... and she will incinerate anything that gets in her way. She's a character whose disability is not a superpower; it makes life hard for her, but she's not helpless. She lives with her disability and has become strong in her own way.

Ahh the character render we used for the promo video! This was our first time making a fully finished model. I did the texturing on this.

It was at this stage that we discovered that rigging is a nightmare. Having such a small team, we can't afford a dedicated rigger and don't really have time, and Sarian's bog hood and mantle were causing serious problems. After deliberation for months, we realised we really had no choice but to redesign Sarian to be more 3D friendly. So it was back to me to redesign a character I had felt was one of my strongest designs to still have the same sort of feeling and still be striking and distinctive, but to also be rig-friendly with no clutter on the shoulders or armpit region. Another request that was made was to at some kind of extra interest to the long drop of the dress. I spent several hours trawling through as much info as I could find about Regency period fashion looking for interesting ideas and doodling things I immediately deleted because they were awful. Naturally after struggling for a while, I went back to paper. I sat in my garden and started sketching:

As soon as I drew the collar to replace the hood, I realised I'd have to slant the hair to make it work. You can even see in the top left where I rubbed it out! I realised that it actually looked better that way; the sharper angle works well with Sarian's sharp personality as well as her subversive nature. Sarian became more edgy as these gothic and grunge elements worked their way in and yet, at the same time, she became more period-accurate too, with the Spencer Jacket and chemise and the very high waist. The "Dysiaboo" thing will make sense when you play the game, but Sarian has an intense fascination with the culture of Orka's rival nation, the Dysian Empire, and kind of nerds out over their more "Enlightened" culture to the point that we started to call her a "Dysiaboo" in conversations. I tried a design with some of the classical and imperial elements of the Dysian Empire in, but it was a little plain and also would have made the Dysian characters you come across feel less distinctive, so I toned them down. Amazingly that batwing shaped chemise was based on an actual Regency period design. Why we don't have Pride and Prejudice and Batman yet, I don't even know! I had this weird thought about a wing pattern that kind of encloses her chest and it just worked. It felt so perfect for her subversive nature to have these symbols of chemistry and medicine enshrined with dark wings. Sarian loves science and magic; her life was saved by them as a child. The snakeskin-like chemise also gives a sense of "rebirth" to Sarian.

Sarian's new design! The symbol of Mercury; a life source in alchemy but also a poison, sits in pride of place above the star of the Orkan church. Sarian sure likes to play close to the edge! The little brass studs make her look kind of punk, which I love. I'm actually really happy with this design; it kind of fits her even better than her old one did. And so we get to making game graphics and...

It's coming along nicely!

Game Design

Behind the Name: Sarian

Sometimes, I get asked how I invent the names for the Orkan characters in Vacant Sky since unlike the other cultures in the world, they aren’t inspired by any real-world culture or language. This does change a little bit in Vacant Sky Awakening, as people of Southern Orkan or Eastern Orkan descent have French-inspired names due to their proximity to neighboring Ghallice, so for the purposes of this post, when I’m talking about Orkan names, I’m referring specifically to Northern Orkan names.

An interesting example of how I name Orkan characters is Sarian.

Over the years, I’ve compiled a list of a couple hundred common Orkan words to use as roots in proper names. When I need to name someone or something, I browse through my dictionary for a suitable root word and use it to derive a name.

Those familiar with the original Vacant Sky might recognize the root word in Sarian’s name, as the elemental spells in Contention were all named in Orkan.

Sarian’s name is derived from the Orkan word sar, meaning fire. I decided to develop an etymology behind the name, and that it would be a fairly rare name. It’s the feminine form of the more common Sarius.

Her name carries a lot of meaning, not just for her, but also her father. As a result of certain events in Waltz Through Ashes, her father, Vaius Monarim, has a fondness for fire, and I thought it would be a nice touch to convey that through his choice of names for his daughter.

Fire carries a nuanced connotation in Orkan culture and what it symbolizes is a little different from what you’d expect. To the Orkans, fire represents scientific progress. It is characterized as being precise, controlled, and manmade. Fire is all that keeps them warm and lit in the six month winter of Viadahn. It is a triumph over nature.

They don’t really have a concept of wildfires because of the frigid, wood-free environment they live in, so the notion of a fire burning out of control doesn’t really show up in their folk symbology.

At first glance, fire might not seem to match the subdued, even-tempered Sarian, but she really embodies the Orkan idea of what fire represents. She is a scientist and a thinker, and her circumstances reflect the effect her namesake has had on her people: against tremendous odds, she has persevered over nature and continues to live on.

Game Design

Enemies: Intelligent or Interesting?

(Cross-posted from my tumblr.)

Artificial intelligence is an area I think about a lot. My undergrad research was primarily concerned with intelligently coordinating teams of agents in games and now, a lot of the work at my day job involves researching new ways to guide AI agents to intelligently reason about real-world problems in simulations.

In a simulation, the more intelligent an agent is, the better the simulation. Although they have a lot in common, games are very different from simulations. The goal of a simulation is training, whereas the goal of a game is (arguably) entertainment.

I’m going to talk a little bit about what this distinction means for the design of enemies in games.

Gamers often talk about wanting “more realistic” or “more intelligent” enemy AI in games, but I don’t think that that’s necessarily desirable. For one, players never notice AI in games unless it’s bad. When working on my graduation project, we poured untold hours into researching and designing a group coordinator AI that could dynamically generate and employ strategies, but almost no one who played the game ever commented on (or seemed to observe) the intelligence of the AI.

The party member AI actually did have to be turned down in early testing because it was way too intelligent and it made the player feel like an accessory. The party AI liked to employ this particularly wicked strategy:

Have the party healer cast every status augmentation on the grenadier
Have the primary attacker run in ahead of everyone else and start taunting and luring all the enemies into one place
Have the grenadier constantly spam every area-of-effect attack on the now-gathered enemies
Given the rules of the game, this was the optimal strategy. It was brutally effective, but it wasn’t very fun. For one, it was repetitive. For two, there was never a reason to deviate from it. We decided to tweak the party member AI so that, rather than trying to win the battle, its primary goal would be to stay near the player, support them, and make a show of hitting things close to the player.

As a result, even though the AI was much stupider, it appeared more intelligent because you noticed it more, and you always saw it doing things that helped you, the player. They were strictly worse as teammates but made the game more fun to play.

Enemies have the same problem.

Typically, when a player gets outsmarted by an enemy, their response isn’t “wow, that was clever!” The response is usually frustration. “What was I supposed to do?!” “The game is cheating!” Even if the enemy is playing by the same rules as the player, you don’t want to admit to being outsmarted by a machine, and so your natural response is to blame the game for being bad.

While it’s all well and good to say “well, that’s the player’s fault, not the game’s,” it’s a lot easier to change a game than it is to change human nature. So it’s a good idea to keep this in mind when designing AI for enemies in our games.

When designing the encounters in Vacant Sky Awakening, Kate and I sat down and decided upon a unique theme or challenge, that each encounter would present to the player. The enemies in the encounter are designed to act according to a predictable set of rules that the player can learn, and the challenge comes from figuring out a way to overcome the challenge with the resources at your disposal.

It is not an easy game. Most of the encounters are designed to beat you. But each encounter has multiple solutions depending on your skill and party composition, and the idea is to let the player express creativity in solving the problems the encounters pose. Because so much of what the player can do in battle is a consequence of their earlier actions in the story, forcing the player to take ownership of their decisions and use what they’ve left themselves with in order to solve problems gives them a sense of responsibility, which will hopefully drive personal engagement with the game.

Making the enemy AI realistically intelligent would be easy: have all of the enemies gang up on the strongest party member, kill them ASAP, then move onto the next strongest. That’s how most people play RPGs. But being on the receiving end of that isn’t fun. It’s frustrating and it feels unfair.

Instead, design enemies like puzzles, easy to understand but challenging to conquer. Games aren’t simulations, and in areas like artificial intelligence, realism can be the enemy of fun.


Interview with VNs Now!


I did an interview with VNs Now! about VSA, visual novels, and game design. If you like hearing me complain about games, this is for you.
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