Category Archives: Game Development

August Newsletter

Is it September already? Goodness. Welcome to the newsletter – this last month we’ve made some major changes to the interface, made huge strides with our ambitious early access levels, fine-tuned a dynamic music system, and improved the fidelity of the artwork.

There is one important issue that needs to be discussed right away – it’s looking increasingly likely that we won’t hit our summer 2017 target for early access build. This is as frustrating for us as it is for those of you waiting for it, but let us be clear of the reasons. We’ve realized that we simply can’t rush to meet that deadline, because that would affect your experience with the game. You’ve all been incredibly patient, understanding, enthusiastic and just downright lovely about our little project – and you deserve as good a game as we can make. We’re unwilling to compromise on quality for the sake of time. Our hope is that our game will feel very polished for an early access title, with several hours of solid game play and all the supporting systems working properly.

A baby hermit crab

We’ve been working on a strict interpretation of what counts as “summer” – in the UK, where the team is based, September 22nd is its final day. We still hope to have our closed beta ready for around this time. The beta will take a few weeks, after which we will be unleashing early access upon the world. So, given this plan, you can see that the delay is weeks rather than months or years.

Now, to more cheerful matters. Here’s what we’ve been working on over the past month.

Beautifying the Beach

Our game starts on a beach. Once John, our lead level designer, finishes a level he hands it over to artist Matt for what is known as an art pass. Matt adds plants, stones, and variations to the textures to make the whole thing look beautiful.

This month, Matt has been working on making the textures better for the beach and its various flora. We’re very pleased with how the game is shaping up visually.

Debugging and Balance

There’s one overriding rule when working on any form of software – nothing works the way you intended it first time. In a game this is down to two things – glitches (or bugs) in the software, and issues with balance.

Debugging is a crucial process, and Empires of the Undergrowth deals with some rather complex algorithms for things like path-finding (a creature working out the best way to get from A to B) and decision making. In the video below, John has set up a simple visual representation of the area the hermit crabs are trying to get to, in the form of cubes. If they don’t get there, he can see that something’s wrong. It’s often very helpful to create simple visual aids like this during the development phase. Don’t worry – there will not be random cubes appearing when you play the game!

When we say “balance” we mean the adjustment of numbers such as creature health, speed, and attack strength / frequency. Because units are tied to a food cost, it is possible with the change of a single digit to make them horribly overpowered or pathetically weak. In the below video, John has made a simple level that allows him to spawn any unit for two opposing armies. By observing how well they do against each other, he can ascertain if the various units are fairly priced or statted. Without seeing it in action, it’s a very difficult thing to predict. As a side note for this video, we asked if you would like such a tool to play with opposing ant armies, and you seemed enthusiastic! Look out for that.

User Interface Changes

As much as we liked the more natural looking, rocky theme of the interface in the demo (and even the plant-themed one from older builds), as we continue our plan to make the surface a major component of the game we realized the darker, earthier look is too contrasted with the usually brighter surface, so we’ve slimmed it up and made it more functional.

You’ll notice some extra buttons and functions too – we’ll be talking a bit more about them in the future. In short, the UI changes are designed to make the whole game feel more cohesive, whilst giving us more space to add extra functions, because we know you RTS fans like your options to be open. As an added bonus – the way we have things set up with the new UI, there’s no reason that we couldn’t in the future add a way to move the modular windows around to your personal preference.

A Little Music

As Liam composes the music for Empires of the Undergrowth, he tests how it’ll work using Audacity (an open source multi-track audio editor). As you see here there are several tracks playing in unison. Liam simulates the dynamic music system he’s implemented by fading some tracks out and others in.

In-game, the scenario here would be that the ants engage in battle with some creatures, causing the music to become more dramatic and military-sounding. Once the battle is over, the music settles down again to something more baseline. We’re hoping the dynamic music system, which responds to how your colony is faring, will really increase the immersion levels and increase the “documentary” feeling we’ve been going for along with our narrator.

Battle Detection

Empires of the Undergrowth is a real-time strategy game. So we have the same concerns a traditional RTS has – such as alerting the player to an attack! In the below setup, Liam is testing code he’s made to identify where on the map a battle is happening, and how severe it is. The location of the spheres that appear is where the code has identified a threshold level of damage being done, and the size of the sphere represents how intense the fighting is.

This will allow us to add alert icons to the minimap – informing the player of a fight and giving them a chance to respond. Our narrator will also do his best to keep the player up-to-date with their colony’s conflicts.

Saving your Game

Saving and loading is no easy task for a game. Essentially when you save you must decide on each piece of information you will need to restore the game on loading, then store them. You can probably appreciate with an ant colony game that is a lot of different objects (tiles, food, eggs, ants, creatures). Additionally, you must be able to restore the AI if you wish the creature to be doing the same thing when it loads. Saving is of course only half the battle. When a level is loaded, the default setup of the level opens first, then all default food, creatures, eggs and other things are removed.

New objects are created for everything (so for example the queen is an entirely new queen on load) and these are then fed to stored values from the save. It is a slow process to get right. Saving will initially be available in Formicarium mode at early access launch. This is crucial as your Formicarium colony is one you will be returning to after you have finished a mission. All creatures, dug out tiles, built rooms, eggs, food items, pheromone markers and what the ants are doing are restored in this game mode (as well as your resources) so you should be able to keep all progress of your colony.

Tech Tree

Here’s how the tech tree / upgrade system is looking at the moment – more to come on this over the following weeks!

July Newsletter

And so July rolls around to August, so it’s time for our July newsletter! I think we can best surmise July for us using various clichéd yet accurate adjectives such as “busy”, “stressful”, “productive” and “challenging”. As we approach something close to an announcement time we’ve weeded out various long-standing issues, delved deeper into the Unreal Engine 4 code than we ever intended to, and animated a ladybird. Pretty standard for us.

New Creatures

Ladybirds & Aphids

Ladybirds, or ladybugs depending on your parlance, are of course famously insectivorous beetles that love an aphid or two. One of our Kickstarter backers – Maggie – requested they be added to the game as part of her reward tier so here they are! In our game, you’ll be able to harvest honeydew from aphids but your capacity to do so can be severely diminished by the ladybirds. Check out the GIF below – a beetle flies into the scene off-camera, walks over to the aphids, takes one to eat then flies off. They’ll needed to be fiercely contested on some maps to ensure your colony has an ample food supply.

A ladybird snatches a honeydew-producing aphid

A ladybird snatches a honeydew-producing aphid

Funnel Web Spider

Something that took us somewhat by surprise is the popularity of the arachnids that will be featuring in our game. When we started posting pictures and videos of the finished models we decided to add an arachnophobia warning to the posts, since we know that is an issue for some people. We’ve relaxed on this over time since we figured by now people pretty much know what to expect from us, but we still decided to warn people about Segestria florentina, a European funnel web spider.

Everything about her screams menace, and our animator Matt has once again done an incredible job of bringing this fearsome spider to EotU. We can’t wait to show you her lair – she sits at the entrance to a tunnel made of her own webbing, which is attached to long tripwires which allow her to sense the slightest movement. If an ant strays too close, it’s lights out for them. Watch her animation set in the GIF below.

The animation set for Segestria florentina

The animation set for Segestria florentina

Slave-makers

Some species of ant specialize in conducting raids on neighboring colonies to take their unhatched young. Most of the stolen pupae and larvae are eaten, but a few of them are raised as new workers and soldiers for their captive colony, hence the name of slave-makers. In one of the early access levels, your ants will encounter a colony of Formica sanguinea, otherwise known as blood-red ants. When they take your young from their nursery tiles, that tile will become unusable for a significant amount of time – so unless the slave-makers are dealt with soundly you’re going to find yourself outnumbered very quickly.

Slave-makers steal pupae and larvae from a helpless Formica fusca nest

Slave-makers steal pupae and larvae from a helpless Formica fusca nest

Woodlouse

Woodlice are likely familiar to practically everyone who’s ever looked under a dead log in their garden. They’re isopod crustaceans that feed mainly on decaying plant matter. In nature, they’re too tough for most ants to take down. We still want our in-game ants to be aggressive, so to represent the innate toughness of the armor-covered woodlouse, we’ve given it a “bunker down” ability as you can see in the GIF below. When it enters this mode, the woodlouse takes significantly less physical damage. A tricky critter to take down.

A woodlouse bunkers down to fend of its attackers

A woodlouse bunkers down to fend of its attackers

Music & Sound

Our composer and sound designer Liam has been working through some challenging technical difficulties to get his dynamic music system working. The issue he was having was to do with the timing of new clips starting or ending, which because of the way the engine works could sometimes be a beat out of sync and therefore sound wrong to the ear. He believes he’s now solved this issue with some workarounds and redesigns, and has now got back to the task of finishing up the music needed for early access.

Liam has also started the task of getting the voice of the narrator – played superbly by the talented Callum Edmunds – into the levels. He’ll speak as the levels progress, commenting on the evolving tale of your ants, and introducing new creatures the colony encounters. He’ll also provide some more traditional RTS commentary, such as informing you when your queen is under attack or when your ants see an enemy.

Level Design & Balance

John is furrowing his brow regularly as he works to complete the six levels required for early access. One particularly ambitious level (known internally as “2.1”) is keeping him up late as he works to include all of the planned events and timings.

With such a small team (3 developers and 1 social media guy), the issue of balance is obviously very difficult when we’re in the developments stage. This is why our beta before the main early access starts will be so vital – we have in the region of 900 people who bought into the beta tier on Kickstarter or Paypal, which should give us a large enough player base to get significant feedback for the numbers we need to tweak. Obviously we will continue to balance and change things after early access starts – so if you’re planning on giving the game a spin later this summer now would be the perfect time to get registered on our forums and introduce yourself to the small but passionate community of ant fans already talking about the game there.

As John completes the preliminary designs for the levels, he hands them over to Matt for an art pass. This means that all the pebbles, plants, and intricate texturing gets added after the layout and scripted features of a level are done. We hope to have all of the levels playing and looking nice in time for early access to start, but as mentioned feedback on all of these points will be very much appreciated.

Steam keys for backers released!

Please note: this is not the release of the game, but the Steam keys in preparation for your Early Access this summer!

Backers, rejoice! Steam keys for Empires of the Undergrowth have now been sent to your emails. This will be the email associated with your Kickstarter account, or with your PayPal account if you backed after the campaign – so please check that for your key (also check your junk mail folder just in case, sometimes your email provider can confuse things as spam).

There are a few things to be aware of here, so please read them:

  • If you are a beta backer, your key will allow you to download the Backer’s Demo through Steam immediately! When the game goes into beta testing in a few months, your Backer’s Demo will update to be the beta Early Access version.
  • If you are not a beta backer, your key will allow you to add Empires of the Undergrowth to your Steam library, but not download anything yet. When Early Access is released this summer, you will have immediate access to it through Steam.
  • If you backed a tier that includes additional copies of the game, you will receive additional normal keys (not beta keys). You are free to share these with your family and friends, and once activated, they will also get Early Access in the summer.

The guys are now soaring ahead to the Early Access release this summer. Once things have settled down from the Steam key release, the three of them will be knuckling down hard to reach that goal, so there won’t be any more demo updates until early access, barring major bug fixes. The upside of this is – there’s only a few months to wait! Early Access will bring the surface, lots of new missions, new ant types, and new modes of play. Exciting times ahead!

Go ahead and redeem your Steam keys now! We’re really excited to finally get to this stage – it’s been a long time coming.

Time for a “behind-the-scenes” update

It’s been a busy summer for the team so far.  We are working hard behind the scenes, tightening the bolts, oiling the chain, oiling the brakes, cleaning the oil off the brakes, you shouldn’t oil your brakes… I digress.  The point is that the work is currently quite technical and there isn’t much to show.  We have identified some major bottlenecks in the way the game runs and are smoothing those out.  This has involved converting a number components created in Unreal Engine’s “Blueprints” (which is a type of visual coding that looks like a flowchart) into C++.

Anyway, seen as things are quiet on the update front, and we don’t have any new insect eye candy, I thought I might be able to interest some of you with a peak into our development process as a team.  Our company is technically based in Birmingham, UK but only our lead developer, Matt lives there.  A dedicated office is totally out of our price range and so we live and work separately with myself and John in Hannover, Germany and Liverpool, UK respectively.  We use a mix of different technologies to collaborate effectively, with new things creeping in all the time.

I think I have to say that our biggest friend so far has been Google Drive. Google Docs

The ability to create spreadsheets, documents and throw in whatever else into shared folders is invaluable.  However, there has never been any strict organization of file structure so navigating is not as efficient as it could be, especially as we now seem to have 3 “Slug Disco” folders spread across our accounts.  It is also where Matt uploads his development ‘lecture’ videos for the rest of the team, I thought I would take this opportunity to share a snippet with you.  His diagram drawing skills are second to none.

We have also started using a team project management tool called “Asana”.  It’s nice for creating & assigning tasks with deadlines – perfect if you enjoy receiving tons of notification emails.

Asana Graph

To remain in contact generally we use good old Facebook, because you can always reach someone there.  Though, again, not always the most efficient.  The following conversation went on much longer than the screenshot suggests, sometimes you need a doodle.

betterThanDoodle

If you have any questions, comments, feedback, game suggestions etc, we always want to hear from you.  Contact us on our Slug Disco FB page or throw us a Stomt.

P.S. Thanks to all the Youtubers who have been covering our demo, the response is incredible, and this build is really only a snippet of what we have in store.  TheWillyrex just had a go; it’s at times like this when we wish John had paid more attention in his Spanish lessons!

Gifs and Music

Last week we began a bit of a media drive ramping up to EGX Rezzed. We have been releasing more gifs, screen shots and music than ever before. You can see them by visiting our twitter account and Facebook pages, but here is a selection of them in case you missed them:

Sample of some in-game music, I think Liam has done a great job:

The first iteration of the games main menu, credit to Matt for putting this together:

via GIPHY

Travelling from below ground to above ground:

via GIPHY

A pan over two of the environments in the game:

via GIPHY

Keep up to date as we release these by liking our Facebook page:

http://www.facebook.com/slugdisco/

And following us on Twitter:

http://twitter.com/SlugDisco

January 2016 Dev Update

Over January we began our move into the Unreal Engine 4 focusing at first on the Underground section of the game.

This included basic AI, the underground tiles, resource gathering, construction, egg laying and development.

We will be releasing development videos each month so you can keep up with our progress, the first is below and describes what we did in January.

We will be at EGX Rezzed this year in London on the 7th – 9th of April, so if you can make it please do say hello and have a play on our first playable build of the game.

We are returning to Kickstarter at the end of April and there will be lots more information and videos then. More about that later this month.

2016 first two weeks.

With the first couple of weeks of the year already gone by you may be wondering what we have been up to. Well, Matt has a screen shot for us today:

Underground Unreal Engine 4

This is an early shot of the Queens chamber in Empires of the Undergrowth, running in Unreal Engine 4. The little white point-lights will eventually form part of ground decoration which should be appearing in the coming days. Exciting times!

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Moving to the Unreal Engine

Happy Christmas Eve! I thought we should chat about this most festive of topics, the move to a pre-built engine.

TLDR: Kickstarter showed that PC is the most popular platform for the game so we are focusing on that. We need not be as efficient with our programming for PC and a pre-built engine allows us to give prototypes to the community so they can help in development. Unreal Engine 4 (UE4) has some great features that will help us more rapidly move forward with the project.

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EGX Thoughts

Hello!

Crystal Rift played with a VR headset.

Crystal Rift played with a VR headset.

We had a great time at EGX. We got to speak to a load of other indie developers and had a go at their titles. I particularly enjoyed having a go on EITR and getting completely destroyed by the boss on the demo level. I am a massive fan of both the souls series and Diablo so this little indie game was right up my alley.

I also tried out Crystal Rift with a VR headset. It is great fun and I cannot wait till the day I can pick up a VR headset of my own.

We had the opportunity to chat to different publishers and we learned a few things by going to a series of workshops. Needless to say the future looks bright generally.

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Why so quiet? Dev Update!

Yes we have been unusually quiet this past week. We will try and post things but there will be a little lull until the last week of the month.

But do not fear it is not because we are not doing anything… in fact it is the opposite we are working harder than ever! Reason being we are attending EGX on the 24th and 25th and so we are getting together a game build and preparing promotional material. By the moths end there should be much more available here for you to sink your teeth in to, and in the following month the main site will get an update as well!

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