The Clock is Ticking in The Occupation by White Paper Games
The time is 3:27 p.m. and you have four hours to work with in this investigative thriller. An attack has left 23 people dead and the British government is looking to institute a controversial act which threatens the civil liberties of the British population. As a reporter tackling the turmoil, you will react in real time to events happening within the game with the fate of an entire population resting on your shoulders. No pressure, right?
With the release of 2015’s Ether One, the team at White Paper Games learned a lot from its first round of developing with Unreal Engine 4 and utilized that knowledge to craft the very unique experience offered in The Occupation. Speaking on the lessons learned, the benefits of using Unreal Engine 4, and the inspiration for this politically charged adventure, we sit down with five of their nine person team behind the game to chat about their development journey.
The Occupation is White Paper Games' second project. What important lessons did you learn during the development of your first game, Ether One, that gave you a head start on your second?
Pete Bottomley, Game & Narrative Designer: Identifying the mistakes we made on Ether One was definitely an important step in figuring out how we wanted to approach development on The Occupation. On a high level, team communication, production pipelines, scope and budgets are the common issues you’d expect to have on most projects. No matter how well planned the project is though, the important thing is to try to avoid making the same mistakes twice in hopes that the second time around they cause less disruption. With that in mind, I think we’ve been able to create a strong development pipeline and understand our people’s key strengths along with which elements we can double down on to get a higher payoff.
I think we’ve reached a stage in the 5-10 person studio space where a lot of the small startups from 2010-2015 are now figuring out how to create their second game which comes with a whole host of challenges which you may never have picked up on in your first game. For instance, most people didn’t have a budget to work with and just funded as well as they could through to completion (we know the feeling of checking the bank to see if you can afford to buy a cup of coffee!). Understanding that things will always take at least 20% additional time, and in our case we’ve found it’s more like 40% additional time, allows you to focus on what is key for the game. A phrase that is useful when I’m planning development decisions is ‘what would this look like if it was easy’ (Ferris, 2017). Forget business terms like ‘MVP’ (Minimum Viable Product) which I feel removes the creativity aspect and instead focus on major milestones (or even weekly reflection of the development) to identify three things that you can do in the near term which would have a large impact on the game. I’ve only started to use this approach in the last six months, but it has helped our development dramatically in getting player facing elements online.
Due to the game advancing in real time, what sort of pressures are going to be put on the player to help immerse them in the game experience? Can players expect tense moments with big decisions and even bigger implications for how the story unfolds?
Steve Lee, Game Designer: Simulating the game's characters and events in real time is super interesting and presents a very different challenge for both us as developers and a different experience for the players compared to how games usually work. We're very conscious of how constant, severe time pressure would make the player feel like they have no time to explore the world, experiment with the game's systems, or find their own way through the narrative. Those things are exactly what The Occupation is about, so we have to make sure we're getting what we want from the real-time aspect, while avoiding the potential pitfalls.
For us, it is partly about immersion, in the sense of making the game's world and characters feel like they exist and are alive beyond what the player is doing. It isn't really there to create pressure, but to help meaningful choices, interesting situations, and branching story conclusions feel like they emerge naturally as the player progresses through the game.
Having said that, certain key events, such as the interviews the player is there to instigate with staff members at the facility, are due to be held at specific times during the game. It's up to the player to decide how to manage their time between these scheduled meetings, sneaking around and finding new leads to investigate, without being late and missing these opportunities to ask people directly about what's really going on. Again, it's about interesting, meaningful choices, in a situation that feels dynamic and convincing. Tricky but interesting stuff!
You’ve been quoted saying AAA games such as BioShock Infinite, Thief, Deus Ex, and Dishonored are forms of inspiration for the team. You also said that you’re aware a small, nine person team has to be realistic about what they can achieve. How do you feel you scaled down such big ideas and inspirations into a more manageable and achievable goal?
Pete Bottomley, Game & Narrative Designer: We have a huge amount of respect for the teams creating those games and if we only achieve 10% of what they accomplish, we will be incredibly happy. They’re the games we grew up playing and the ones we find ourselves being completely immersed in through their world-building and storytelling. There are certain aspects which are achievable with a small team, such as systemic gameplay and using Unreal’s Blueprints system, we can quickly see the flow of game code in a very accessible way. It allows us to prototype gameplay mechanics quickly to see what works and what doesn’t. I think the thing that is slightly harder to achieve is the production quality they hit with their titles. When you’re a team of nine, the biggest challenge takes place in delegating time to the resources you think will have the biggest impact. Setting certain constraints such as fixing the gameplay in an enclosed location helps reign in scope creep.
The narrative in The Occupation, while fictitious in nature, draws heavy parallels to the real world. Was there inspiration from any particular historic/current events that fueled the creation and development of The Occupation?
Nathaniel Apostol, Audio & Narrative Designer: We weren’t inspired by one specific source but more from history as a whole. The idea that people and their government can be in conflict with each other is something that resonates throughout human history. That was something very interesting to us, as well as the blurred lines of good and evil. That is to say, what's morally right to one person could be monstrous to another.
When we set out to tackle the issue of immigration and deportation, we were looking at how prejudices come to be as a whole. What are the factors that could divide countries collective opinion? History is full of examples where people have been convinced into believing something (falsely or justly) about a group of people. Typically, when people have been sorted into groups or classes, the worst of humanity has shown itself.
People have noticed the similarities between the game and our current political state, and since we started development some years ago, our subject matter has only become more relevant. However, to be fully honest with our players, the game has nothing to do with current political affairs and everything to do with it at the same time.
In an effort to make The Occupation's AI as believable as possible you introduced what you call a curved pathing system. Can you explain what that is and describe how Unreal Engine 4 helped you bring it all together?
James Burton, Character & Technical Artist: “Curved paths” is one of our animation layers for NPCs which allows us to have characters move off the actual AI path that is drawn on the Navmesh in order to get more believable motion out of them. This means when going from point to point on the nav path, characters are able to go off it in order to perform curved turns. We achieved this by taking advantage of the fact that characters are rotated at a constant rate towards the next nav point by default in Unreal Engine 4. We used this to essentially tell the AI, instead of sticking to the path as they rotate towards the next point, to move in the direction of their forward vector, which is constantly rotating towards the said point, until it’s aligned with it.
There’s a bit of maths involved in order to know when to allow the AI to use the curved paths, as well as to account for some contingencies, but this is all explained a lot clearer in our Unreal Engine blogpost, which you can find here.
It was quite easy to do in Unreal since so much of the groundwork is already done for us. We essentially just had to add a bit of code in order to get it working, and then it was a case of adding more layers of animation to make it look a lot better, like a bit of anticipation and making the AI look towards their next turn, etc. It’s amazing that for our entire animation system, this is pretty much the only place in which we needed to add or edit any code in C++. All the other layers were done in the animation Blueprint, which is an incredibly powerful tool that allowed us to iterate and try a lot of different methods until we hit the one that worked for us.
We've only seen a tiny slice of The Occupation's graphics thus far and it's beautiful. One of the first comparisons made for The Occupation in terms of its artistic style is BioShock Infinite. Was BioShock Infinite a direct influence? How did White Paper Games decide on the visual direction of the game?
Oliver Farrell, Environment Artist: The Occupation was not directly influenced by the art style of Bioshock Infinite, but the world building present in Bioshock games has always been deeply immersive. In a sense, these games along with Dishonored set a precedent for how detailed environments can be and how much of the world’s narrative can be presented to the player through them.
The Occupation’s art style is a natural progression from our first game, Ether One. In Ether One, the world is comprised of low poly models and hand painted textures, with the incorporation of line work to give almost a cell shaded style. This art style was also created so we could produce work quickly with a small art team. We worked to our strengths as it was our first game and we had limitations on what we were able to create.
Now with the Occupation, we feel more competent as artists, but we still have to work with the limitations of a small art team. We continued with our hand painted textures, but removed the line work that gave Ether One its style. We incorporated our painting style in our roughness and metalness maps to sustain the painted feel throughout. This, combined with more detailed models and normal maps on flat surfaces, gave The Occupation a fresher look.
The lighting and post processing we use in The Occupation also plays a massive role on the visual quality of the game. We made sure the post processing added a unique look to the world to give it a cold and uneasy vibe, reflective of the world’s narrative. The lighting plays a huge part in the tone of the world. Setting the game over a fixed time period gave me a lot of control over how the levels would be lit at different stages of the game. When the game begins it is earlier in the day so I could push more vibrant, inviting lighting to add a level of comfort to the player. As the day draws to a close and the game reaches its climax I pushed more unsettling tones and a darker color palette. This served the narrative well and helped us control the emotional beats we wanted the player to feel.
The Occupation is the team's second go round with Unreal Engine 4. Has your existing knowledge of the engine benefitted the ease of development this time around?
Pete Bottomley, Game & Narrative Designer: One thing I think newly formed, independent teams don’t take enough advantage of is the reuse and refactoring of existing code bases. They seem to switch up games and code bases very often. We are definitely guilty of this from the back end of our previous game Ether One and have reused very little, if any, code. We took two years to announce The Occupation and this was a conscious choice to spend more time, and fortunately we were afforded the luxury based on the previous game’s sales, to create a code foundation for the studio which we can reuse on our future projects. Things such as the AI locomotion system which we mention above, the way AI are given and act out different tasks in the world along with how our moment to moment gameplay is coded, is all structured in a way to reuse on our future game titles, which is something that we’re currently in the process of by moving onto our next title. There’s definitely an argument against just getting the code together to release the game as you’ll learn how to do things better a second time round, but I think a constant evaluation at each stage is the correct way to go for our approach.
If you can think back to your original vision for The Occupation how has Unreal Engine 4 helped you achieve that vision? Is there a particular tool that has been helpful to you?
Pete Bottomley, Game & Narrative Designer: Going back to 2010 when we began work on Ether One’s development, we used our limitations to create the game’s design. All we knew is that we would use Unreal Engine and we had UDK to do that in. Ether One is a first-person narrative driven game with no characters, little animation and a core mechanic set because of one thing - we had no coder, character artist or animator. Instead of having the game we want to create and hiring to fill those roles, we work on what each member of the team wants to focus on which leads to the foundation of the game’s design. I think these ‘walking simulator’ games were based on technical constraints and delivering the best story with a limited toolset - we also had no programmer for a year so any gameplay we prototyped was all through Kismet (the visual scripting system in UDK). Ether One benefited from us adhering to those constraints and doing the best job we could with them.
Fast forward to 2015 when we began work on The Occupation, we gained familiarity with Unreal Engine 4 moving Ether One from UDK to Unreal for PS4. This meant we had new, and importantly, very visual tools at our disposal: creating systems with Blueprints, AI and Behaviour Trees, Unreal’s Sequencer, Persona & PBR. At this time, we also didn’t have a programmer or animator on the team. We spent maybe six months or so learning all the new features between our team of four which would give us the foundation of our newly created constraints. Since we had one character artist, we would have a limited character set of seven. We also only had one gameplay designer so creating modular systems which could interact with each other systemically seemed the way to go. We wanted most of the world’s music to be played diegetically so with the constraint of a fixed time length, we created radio stations that could be played throughout the world in real-time whilst making use of the new Audio Occlusion tools.
Where can someone go to find out more about The Occupation?
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