King’s Ascent: Dev Diary

King’s Ascent, a game I’ve been working on as Lead Artist/3d Modeler for the past year with the Aqualuft team is finally wrapping up. Since this my senior studio project, I’m going to go more in depth about I what specifically worked on. You can play an updated version of the game on my games page, or just Click here

Core Concept:

Gameplay Mechanic:

I came up with idea for a platformer game where the goal is to use jumping to get blocks to fall on a monster chasing you from below. Platformers are a genre of games where the primary action is jumping. By doing so they test a player’s sense of timing and positioning in a virtual space.

There are lots of variations of platformers: there are games like Doodle Jump where the goal is to climb as high as you can, games like Catherine where the goal is climb higher to escape a giant monster, games like Braid that have minor sections of gameplay where you kill a monster by dropping things on it. What makes King’s Ascent unique is that it presents a trade off between climbing higher versus doing more damage. So in addition to testing a player’s sense of timing/positioning, King’s Ascent also challenges their abilities for path finding, judging trajectory, and balancing maintaining a safe distance vs making sure they’ve caused enough damage to kill the monster before they reach the top.

Braid:

Catherine:
Doodle Jump:

Early sketch of gameplay mechanic:

Theme:

The main gameplay of King’s Ascent involves causing the ground to crumble beneath you in order to kill a giant monster.  When I thought about it metaphorically, the player is essentially trying to destroy the world beneath them in order to defeat a large source of fear.  After reading Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators by Riccardo Orizio, I noticed a parallel between the state of mind of a tyrant: the need to constantly grab power, even at the cost of destroying their people, to escape paranoia of the demise of themselves or their nation. I concluded that King’s Ascent should be about a king who had done terrible things during his reign, and had to destroy his own glory (represented by his castle) to order to escape the consequences of his decisions that brought him the glory in first place.

Early sketch of theme + mechanic:

The problem with this theme was it would make for a very dark/gritty world. While there’s nothing wrong with this, as Rosstin (producer/programmer/level designer) pointed out, it’s not going to very fun if it’s too depressing. Then I thought what if the levels were floating castles? They could still embody the crumbling glory theme, but be beautiful at the same time. It also had the bonus of us not having to explain weird platformer physics where platforms just magically defy gravity.

Early floating castle sketches:

   

There also needed to be some reason why the king could not progress until they had killed a monster. For this, I suggested the idea of stain glass checkpoints–they would shatter when the monster let out its death scream. Stain glass is pretty and fits with the theme, but more importantly it’s commissioned by a church or nobility. So the stain glass would serve as propaganda for how the king wanted his people to seem his deeds: as images of heroism and glory. In order to survive the king would have to shatter that image: a parallel for how the king would have to shatter his ego if he wanted to survive the consequences of his reign.

Early sketches of stain glass:

Characters:

I made multiple quick sketches for various designs for the king and showed them to the team, which at the time consisted of me, Rosstin Murphy and Andrew Head.

In these designs all had a few things in common:

  • The king is old/in late middle age, he has visible wrinkles and grey or white hair to reflect that. He’s ruled long enough to make enemies and view the monsters being sent against him as betrayal rather than punishment
  • The king has a large mustache that would take a lot of effort to style and maintain. This is a quirky way to give his character some pompousness and arrogance

The final design was heavily inspired Tim, the main character from Braid designed by David Hellman. Both Braid and King’s Ascent deal with the theme of regret, so I wanted to draw that parallel through artistic style. Functionally, by having the character be in a similar 3/4 view meant that I could convey the king’s emotional state with detailed facial expressions and not have to draw/animate the side view.

Tim:

Throughout the gameplay, the king will talk to his enemy to explain his side of the story in a futile attempt to convince them not to attack him. The enemies talk back, revealing further crimes the king committed. Since we only had 2 voice actors and not much time for the player focus on the conversation, creating icons was the most direct way of communicating who was talking:

   

Cutscenes tell the story in between gameplay segments. There was a lot of dialogue to cram in between gameplay segments, so I made the cutscenes in comic form to deliver the story in the most engaging and efficient way. Coloring and speech bubbles will be done by Carolyn McGraw.

Sample cutscene. Click to view album with all cutscenes in it.

Click to view all cutscenes

The Dragon:

I wanted the first boss to be the least sympathetic, so the severity of the king’s decisions increases with each level. Thus we decided it would be a dragon skeleton, since dragons are a fairly common enemy in games and medieval tales.

Meagan Trott drew the concept art, but I critiqued the design, suggesting that she add spikes to make a more effective silhouette, and thus make the creature more threatening.

Image showing evolution of design. Right: initial concept. Center: My feedback sketches. Left: final concept

I talk more about the process for modeling the dragon in an earlier post here: https://sharonhoosein.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/dragon-shader/

The Fish:

I learned that the process of drawing a mesh on concept and then extruding edges to create polygons that matched the drawn worked well for the dragon but took too long and wasn’t as effective for an organic creature like the fish monster.  So I switched to ZBrush to create a digital sculpture of the fish, then imported the sculpt into TopoGun in order to build a workable model on top of the digital sculpture.

ZBrush fish sculpture:

My process for animating the monsters is that I create 3D animations in Maya and render out the image frames. However, since King’s Ascent was intended for Kongregate, the entire game had to be under 20MB. Due to this constraint, I had to select at most 8 frames that were the most descriptive of the motion to create the final animation. My first pass at the fish animations included a lot of secondary animation. While secondary animation looked good in a low frame rate on the king, the fish’s size exaggerated much of the secondary animation resulting in terrible, spastic movement.  When I redid the animation, I cut out the subtle movements altogether. I also avoiding animating the lower half, since the player only sees that part of the fish for a few seconds if they miss a jump.

Comparison of two idle animations, later iteration on the right (click to view full size):

More fish animations:

Bite: Turn: Death:

The Old Tyrant:

Unlike the dragon and the fish, which both have long bodies, the final boss was only the top half of a corpse and two severed hands–thus the player would be exposed to much more detail than in the previous two monsters. Reconstructing all the details in TopoGun as I had with the fish would be too time consuming, so instead I baked out an ambient occlusion, cavity, and normal maps to capture depth and lighting information from the ZBrush sculpt for each separate piece of the model.

Tyrant torso ZBrush sculpt:

Torso sculpt: Hands sculpt:

Maps created for the mask to capture depth information:

Tyrant animations:

Torso:

Attack: Hurt:

Hands:

Attack: Hurt: Moving:

UI

Health bar:

It is especially important that the health bar be noticeable. In previous players didn’t pay attention to the monster’s health bar, then got confused why the checkpoint didn’t break when they failed to kill the monster. So in designing the health bar it is especially important that it stands out without being too gaudy/distracting.

The health bar doubles as a pointer to indicate the monster’s position when offscreen. To this end, I gave the health bar a tapered end to make it closer to a pointer arrow.

Map/Height bar:

The x travels up a parchment colored bar to indicate the player’s position relative to the next checkpoints. Bar gets redder towards the top in order to reinforce the danger of climbing too high too fast.

I designed the look to closely resemble the health bar to  reinforce the connection between the monsters’ life and the player’s ability to move forward. It is not implemented in this version of the game.

Cutscene navigator:

Simple instructions for navigating through the cutscenes

Game Design:

I designed the in game tutorial to introduce the mechanics of the game to player one at a time without disrupting the flow of the gameplay. I created mockups to communicate the design to the programmers.

Mockups of previous iterations of the tutorial:

Through playtesting, we realized were having problems picking up on some concepts, such as using trampolines to bust through walls. I used mockups to design block layouts that would teach these concepts to the player.

 

A lot of design suggestions happened verbally during meetings, and would be recorded on whiteboards.

Playtesting:

In addition to creating content, I ran playtests for the game. In addition to testing with friends, we tested publicly at GDC, Game Showcase, and GCS Arcade. I established this method of  playtesting to get the most out of the feedback sessions:

  1. Silently take notes on the player behavior while playing the game. If player gets stuck, record any hints we give them and write down where they give up if they do.
  2. Interview the player. Questions vary depending on what we’re testing we’re testing for.  General questions include “What were you trying to do, and what elements did you find most useful towards this end?” “What distracted you?””What did you least like about the game?””What did you like best about the game?”
  3. Write down personal reflections on player behavior, and what we think may have been the actual problem.

This method proved really useful in distinguishing the difference between what appears to cause issues in gameplay and what dependencies are actually causing those issues. While the thoroughness worked well with individual playtesters, it relies too much on good notetaking and was a challenge to keep up with during public playtest sessions.

What’s Next:

The game is currently waiting on final audio, cutscene coloring, and some background elements. My role as an artist is finished, though I’ll still be working on promotion of the game.

The game will be released on Kongregate by the end of May/early June.

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