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3. Character Animation and Controls
When we started the project, we hadn't done humanoid characters in a while. Our skills had gone a bit rusty and we had to relearn how to model and rig realistic humanoids, not to mention how to animate them and bring them to current-gen standards.
Luckily the studio was working on Dead Nation (for PS3/PSN) at the same time and that allowed us to put a strong emphasis on biped animation (Dead Nation is a zombie game with dozens of different humanoid characters). Thus, developing biped characters for it automatically helped Outland as well.
On top of that, the key character animator on both projects was the same person, which further added to the overall quality of animation; the animation styles in the two projects differ from each other but both still rely on realistically-moving biped characters.
Of course, working with Ubisoft, which is traditionally a very animation-strong company, our initial bar was set high on character movement and responsiveness. Fortunately Ubisoft Montréal animators were able to provide us feedback on the animation and our producers pushed (main) character movement as one of the key development areas for Outland.
In the end all the hard work really shows in the game. We have received praise from numerous members of media and gamers alike on the high quality of our animation.
Apart from animation and actual gameplay, our biggest worry was how the added Ikaruga mechanism would work with the controls. But, as we only had to add the polarity switching to our already =0working platforming controls, the problem was smaller than we originally thought. One might say the problem solved itself through its simplicity.
4. Boss Fights
Outland is divided into a tutorial section followed by five gameplay chapters. This division gave us a straightforward goal for building five end-level bosses, or "guardians", as we call them. When we revealed the game at PAX in September 2010, we had only one near-final boss in the game -- all the others were planned to some level of detail but did not yet exist in a playable form.
Our design goal with the bosses was to build enemies that were different from the rest of the gameplay and physically larger than the player character, thus adding to the epic scale and atmosphere. Building the first boss probably took the longest, but also came together the easiest. The rest we struggled with, more or less.
The biggest hurdle we had was with the final boss. We were closing in on our beta deadline and still didn't have the final design for the boss. We knew we didn't have the resources to create a complex character encounter with multiple animations and states, and thus we opted for something more metaphysical -- a boss in spirit rather than in flesh. The end result is a mix of platforming and hard core bullet gameplay spiced with fighting (attacking, really) the end boss(es).
Unlike the rest of the gameplay, the actual work on the bosses fell on the programmers. After we hit our alpha stage, we still had a long way to go to have final bosses in the game. Naturally the programmers were really busy with hundreds of other items the game needed, so they really pushed a lot to get the bosses done. Even if we could have done more testing and difficulty balancing on the bosses, we are happy with the end result; Outland has the five unique, epic bosses we set out to create.
A huge part of the atmosphere naturally came from the visual side. But having just beautiful (static) scenery wasn't enough; our artists built fantastic animated plants, clouds, and constructions to be used in the backgrounds. In addition we created dozens of atmosphere particle effects to add to the theme of each level and chapter: leaves, pollen, rain, dripping water, wind, steam, rubble, explosions... the list is long. We used a proprietary tool for creating the particle effects. While the process wasn't the easiest, our tool was flexible enough to accommodate for the mixture of effects we needed for Outland.
Unlike nailing the visuals early on in the project, audio (especially music) was one area that needed several iterations. The struggle wasn't really with producing the audio, but rather in agreeing on the style. Early songs were clearly more orchestral in nature, but lacked the high tempo we were planning for Outland.
We then tried a more "synth" approach but ended up with dance tunes that really didn't fit the atmospheric graphics. Finally, when talking more in-depth with our composer/sound designer, Ari Pulkkinen, we decided to go with ambient music for building the atmosphere and use uptempo music only during high action scenarios, such as the boss fights. This solution worked well, and Ari was able to compose around 20 songs for the game in a relatively short period of time.