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Postmortem: 8Monkey's Darkest of Days
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Postmortem: 8Monkey's Darkest of Days


November 26, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next
 

3. Custom Engine (just the good parts)

"...like someone trying to build a robot out of chickens and radios."

- Jake Splichal, Level Designer

The Marmoset Engine was written for use with Darkest of Days. Its development began prior to full production of Darkest of Days -- sort of. Early prototypes of the game were pretty rocky, technically speaking. Nevertheless, over the course of the project, this engine has morphed into our studio's greatest asset.

It's become a useful technology base and tool set that everybody here now knows inside and out. Marmoset was mostly conceived as an "exactly and only" solution to the requirements of Darkest of Days, which means that while it is powerful, it is also simple to use and maintain (the entire engine is less than 200,000 lines of code). It is well-suited to a growing studio.

The custom code has given a very custom feel to the game as well. Marmoset has unique animation systems, lighting algorithms and shaders, and special effects. The result is a game that looks subtly different from everything else in a lot of small ways.

The engine also allowed for free experimentation and fast prototyping. Turnarounds with the codebase are fast (a full rebuild takes less than five minutes), and integration of new features has proven easy. Combined with an in-engine editor for level design with an instant preview mode, iteration times were kept tight across the board.

Toward the end of the project cycle, 8monkey Labs teamed up with Nvidia to add support for GPU accelerated physics through the PhysX API. The PC version of the game made use of this technology with its particle system, adding new debris, smoke, and impact effects.

In the end, Marmoset let us leverage a lot of the power and features found in many big name engines, at a fraction of the cost and while still allowing us to retain control over our technology. On top of all of this, we now have a solid technology base (owned by 8monkey) upon which to build future projects.

4. Orangutan's Afterbirth?

Darkest of Days has a winning concept: you are a 19th century American solider who is pulled out of time just before your untimely death at the battle of Little Bighorn, brought to the future, and trained to go back to various time periods to correct history by shooting a lot of guys, often with advanced weaponry brought from the future. If this sounds like fun, it's because it is.

Darkest of Days had such an interesting premise that we knew we'd get an audience from that alone. Mixed with the variety of time periods, we had a potentially great game on our hands. Every member of the team saw the potential here. Combined with the support of our marketing team, Darkest of Days was able to get a lot of publication placement, preview and review coverage, and a nice spot at PAX, despite our limited budget and "no-name" status.

One wild-card that nobody saw coming was Agent Dexter. Dexter was originally conceived as the player's sidekick and guide through the game, delivering mission objectives and narrative. His existence was outlined in early design documents, and at the time no one thought much of it.

Then his dialogue lines started to come in. Dexter turned out to be not only generally belligerent and derisive of the player, but also full of all kinds of obscene, home-spun witticisms. Combined with the perfect voice talent, Dexter was an instant hit with the team and with players. The character of his speech can really be best illustrated with an example:

"This is going to be an old fashioned cluster-fuck right here. You're headed straight into some of the deadliest hours of American history and it's gonna be uglier than an orangutan's afterbirth."

- Agent Dexter, Darkest of Days

5. Busy Bustling Battles

Central to the game design from the very beginning was the need for portraying a large, living battlefield in a first person shooter. We wanted players to feel immersed in the true scale of warfare, to see the full extent of the destruction and loss of life, and to get the feeling of being overwhelmed. A lot of shooters have mastered the art of a five man encounter, but we wanted to go much bigger than that.

This required a lot from a team making its first game -- we not only had to be able to simulate and display hundreds of NPCs onscreen at once, but we had to negotiate the gameplay ramifications as well. Not only did all the AI have to perform well, but the behaviors had to be written such that they worked well in large groups, small groups, or individually.

The rendering and animation systems had to be ready to take the load of hundreds of characters. Level designers had to walk a fine line between scripted Disneyland-style layouts, and the total chaos of a huge battle. And there were big design questions to answer too -- for example, how do we empower the player when he's one of a hundred characters on the field?

There were some nervous periods in the middle of development, before the performance was brought under control and before some of the game-play questions were answered, where we weren't sure it could be pulled off. But the sense of scale and carnage was just too cool not to have, so we stuck it out.

In the end, we were all pretty surprised by the results. Engaging 20 to 100 enemies at a time is really quite a different play experience from most action games, and we're proud of the resulting chaotic feel of our battlefield scenes. The grand battlefields are now definitely the game's strong point.


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