Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

28 October, 2016

More details about The Humanity Hypothesis

So, this is a game development blog. I’ve announced my new project The Humanity Hypothesis, so now let me talk about some of the day-to-day development of developing the game.

I originally wrote this as part of the previous post, but that got long even by my standards! I wanted to include a bit of behind-the-scenes of indie game development. But, this post isn’t exactly short, either.

The value of collaboration

Game development is a lot of work. Hopefully if you’re read my blog for any length of time you’ve picked up on that lesson. It is entirely possible for a single person to make a game, but the reality is that solo indies often bring in others at least temporarily. And, done right, a small team working in coordination can be more efficient than individuals working alone. In addition, a team can do more than individuals if they can work together.

As I said, I’m collaborating with my good friend, Dave Toulouse on this game. His company, Machine 22 is going to be publishing the game. Dave has been helping with the story and gameplay elements, in addition to doing the majority of the programming. I’m doing the narrative design and writing in addition to story and gameplay. Our skills complement each other well and we’re able to do more together than we could individually. Dave understands Unity better than I could be able to learn in a short amount of time.

I used to believe that experience in developing games should not matter. A smart person who can put aside their ego should be able to do the hard work of making a game if they apply themselves. Sadly, my experience has not borne out this belief. It seems there’s enough about game development that isn’t immediately obvious to the outsider and that cannot be explained by experienced people that make some of the details of development something hard to really grasp.

I’ve also had another game developer friend offer help. I’m excited that not only is the game interesting enough for others to offer to help, but that I have great game development friends. I’ve come to accept that there’s something that most people just don’t seem to understand unless they’ve actually worked on games. So, having another experienced person lend a hand is great.

As I wrote last time, Dave wrote his take on the project. He sees The Humanity Hypothesis as a continuation of his previous work, although for me it’s a little different given my background in MMOs. But, I’ll talk about that a bit later. But, I’m very excited about the possibilities of this game.

Game development as (serious) business

Dave previously wrote an amazing blog post about Why is selling good games so hard? In it, he made an observation that I’m jealous I did not state this way before:

Game development isn’t an investment, it’s risk management.

And he’s exactly right. If you pour money into a project and simply assume you’ll see a return on investment because you worked hard on it, you’re going to be in for a world of hurt. You can work on your game for 5 years, but without good marketing only a few people will know about it. People who don’t know about your game can’t buy it!

So, we’re careful about managing our risk. We’re aiming to get this game done in a matter of months instead of years. We’re focused on making a game that is exciting to play as well as exciting to develop. Again, we’re not making a game that everyone will love, but we hope it will hit the right notes for fans of recent games looking for something a bit new and interesting. We’re working hard on development to make this a success without getting lost in the weeds.

We’re also not waiting until after launch to spin a sob story about how nobody is paying attention to our game. I’m carving out time from writing and development to do a bit of marketing. Of course, I’m also going to use the marketing to help with development. I want to do some cool things on Twitter @HumanHypothesis and at The Humanity Hypothesis page on Google+. You’ll find more than the typical screenshots and empty marketing hype you see on other marketing accounts here; we’re going to be asking questions and posting things that will influence development.

And looking at ways we can get more mileage out of the game. For example, developing the game in Unity makes it easy to port the game to other platforms. We’re targeting Windows and Mac first, but with a bit of work we can take the story and put it no mobile phones as well. Of course, putting a full 3D environment on the phone isn’t going to work, but the story and interactions via text should work fine on the phone. This will potentially get us a bit more income using the majority of work we’ve already put into the game. But, we’re definitely focusing on PC and Mac versions first before we spend time doing a mobile version.

Digital interactive storytelling

In some ways, this project is the culmination of a my interests and my professional work over the years. My history in game development and my interest in storytelling and writing are finally coming together.

I’ve been interested in this for a while, but it’s taken me a while to really understand the intersection between games and storytelling. Too often I see people rely heavily on other media and trying to use theories that work in traditional linear media to explain games. I’ve personally seen game developers, even famous ones, with envy of movies and other more accepted storytelling media. There are even a few quite famous examples of game developers eager to go make movies, only to come back with their tails between their legs when their successes in games don’t translate to success in Hollywood.

So, I’ve tried to understand storytelling in games from a more fundamental level. I think this comes from MMOs, where developer-focused stories are the ultimate example of “used once and discarded” content that players will always consume faster than developers can produce. As I’ve written before, there are two stories: the one the developer has written and one that the players create by playing. After playing FFXIV for over two years now, it’s not being “The Warrior of Light” that keeps me going in the game, it’s the interaction with people that keeps me going. It’s talking to a newly made friend to reassure her that she’s not failing the group. It’s hanging out in voice chat with a friendly group of people. It’s meeting a friendly face that I hadn’t seen in a while.

Of course, making a story that feels dynamic is much harder than writing a linear story. Honestly, writing the DLC for The March of the Living (currently 40% off for the Halloween sale!) that let me really explore some of my theories and get some practical experience with game writing. I appreciate that Dave took a chance to let me do some writing.

I have a lot more ideas in my head that I want to try with our new game. But, it’s important to strike a balance between trying cool untested stuff and making a game that is comfortable enough for people to get interested in. Expect a longer post about interactive storytelling later, as I’m still forming my thoughts and theories as I do more work. But, rest assured this game isn’t going to be a linear “guess the right answer to continue” type of game.

What about MMOs?

Okay, so let’s talk about one elephant in the room: why am I not working on an MMO? It basically comes down to two reasons: MMOs are very expensive to make and MMOs are not very popular right now. While I have a bit of development celebrity, I doubt I have enough celebrity to raise the money needed to properly do an MMO. And no investor is going to write a check for me to make an MMO when they could write a check for a VR/AR game.

As much as I love MMOs, I’ve accepted the fact that they’re not feasible for me to work on right now. Not to slight the great work done by indies like Project Gorgon or Shards Online, but I don’t think I could make the game I wanted to at this point.

But, I think that game development is a cycle. MMO might be a dirty word right now, but there are enough games borrowing MMO concepts that they won’t die. In a few years I think we’ll see MMOs make a resurgence, but if you’re a fan of WoW or FFXIV, you may not immediately recognize them as such.

Anyway, feel free to ask questions below. And, do follow The Humanity Hypothesis at @HumanHypothesis and over on the less cool social network I prefer. And if you haven’t done so yet, definitely go check out our Steam Greenlight page and vote for us:







3 Comments »

  1. As always, lots of fodder here for questions. (Funny: “fodder” just got auto-corrected to “FODded.” How long has it been since I played British Legends on CompuServe…?)

    The main one for me is, if a fresh kind of game-oriented storytelling is intended, how will characters be represented in THH? That’s partly a sausage-factory question; animating figures in 3D is stupidly resource-intensive, plus I assume it also would not transfer over to a mobile version. But it’s also a storytelling question: how do you hook the “what happens next?” effect if story is delivered through disembodied voices? That’s not impossible — but it is an important design question.

    Of course all of that is a rhetorical question for now; I’m not requesting an alteration of your reveal schedule. ;) But it is the first/main thing I’ll look for if a primary intended kind of fun in THH is its story.

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 28 October, 2016 @ 5:19 PM

  2. Bart Stewart wrote:
    …how will characters be represented in THH?

    I’ll share a bit about this. One other developer Dave wrote suggested we worry less about spoilers as people will forget. So, I’ll test that theory a bit.

    We aren’t representing the player character. In story terms, this is an important clue to understanding the context; the player character cannot be represented and maintain true to the story. Treat this as another clue about the larger story.

    From a practical development point of view, you are right: representing the characters in 3D is resource-intensive. We’re avoiding that expense by not representing the character. But, it fits with the story, too, but this isn’t something were we do narrative gymnastics to make the story fit our budget.

    Finally, having the character not be represented helps the player identify with the character more. Even in many first person games, there’s a specific character represented by the game. While first-person can help you feel like you’re in that character’s place, having some young white male character may not let people feel they truly identify with the character. This is an old technique where something more iconic helps you identify with the character more than something more directly representational.

    This is related to what you wrote on Twitter:

    The purpose isn’t to have all answers fit your concepts. Rather, the idea is to have you adopt a character personality that would see those “unsympathetic” answers as the “right” answer for the character. You explore the story and see the results without the game forcing a particular “right” morality on you in order to properly progress the game.

    I’m sure some people will see some endings as “good” and others as “bad”, but the goal is to tell a story with the player shaping the outcome, for good or ill.

    Comment by Psychochild — 30 October, 2016 @ 11:56 AM

  3. 1. I think that does give me a good idea of the general nature of the character through whom we’ll express our game choices. Thanks!

    2. I’m someone who enjoys both turn-based strategy and “walking simulator” games, so I like to think I’m more open to exploratory play than the most common gamer types. And yet I still fell into the mode of interpreting the example’s questions as encoding right and wrong answers, out of which I’d be penalized by the game for choosing (what the story/game creator has decided is) the wrong answer.

    This distinction is why the Myers-Briggs people call their assessment instrument a survey or inventory, rather than a “test”: most people (Westerners, at least) are trained to recognize multiple-choice questions as tests, where most answers are wrong, and some of those are deliberately phrased to try to trap the student into choosing them. How this experience conditions the way we gamers approach choice in games, and how game developers respond to that in the games they make, is pretty much what The Stanley Parable was all about. When players expect some answers to be “wrong,” and developers want to make some answers wrong as a device for nudging players toward the story they want players to experience, it becomes very difficult for players — even hardcore Explorers like me — to let go of the “I need to get this right” mindset and just enjoy the surprises of exploratory play.

    So if encouraging players to explore different paths (by pretending to be different kinds of characters) is a goal for THH, I sure hope that will be signposted early and often. Maybe they could even be given an early choice sequence in which selecting an answer that most gamers would consider “wrong” is rewarded for being consistent with the intended character archetype.

    And if you’re really feeling sneaky, you could subvert this later, offering answers that the player thinks the game wants them to pick, only to have the game later question those choices and ask the player to try to justify them or admit inconsistency. The Talos Principle did this, but properly IMO did it only once (over a couple of dialogues). It’s risky because it breaks trust — when a game says “here are the rules,” and then breaks those rules, there’s a non-zero percentage of players who’ll immediately say, “How is this even a game if it doesn’t follow the rules fairly, and why should I keep playing?”

    Anyway, just some thoughts. Looking forward to the next morsel of knowledge. :)

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 31 October, 2016 @ 8:46 AM

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