Folk Tale has undergone a huge amount of iteration and improvement behind the scenes that all started eighteen months ago. In this blog we pause for a mid project review of how we encountered regularly shifting goals, lessons we've learned, and how we'll proceed as we move towards becoming a sandbox game.
Early on in the project Pete and I held numerous meetings on Skype to discuss lore, back story, and a complete plot that would form the basis of a prototype. Having originally briefed high fantasy, Pete persuaded me to run with gangster goblins, a camp wizard named Camphry Mageflower, and a Mexican wrestler themed end boss with small-man syndrome. Listening to Pete turned out to be a good decision as the humor was warmly received in community previews.
The original schedule allowed for a year during which we would gain familiarity with the chosen game engine to mitigate technical risk, refine production workflows, and build a playable single-level prototype. Given it was a feasibility prototype, I briefed the team to forgo modelling facial features for animation; hand gestures would suffice for expediency. We could always replace the heads at a later date should we need to. The production brief specified low polygon characters by today's standards, as potentially we'd be having a lot of characters on screen at any one time.
As script iterations arrived in my inbox, I needed to cull lines that wouldn't work due to constraints introduced by production decisions. Some of the comedy relied on subtle facial gestures that we wouldn't be able to pull off without facial rigging and a ramp up in the poly count of each character. I think this often came as a blow to both of us, because it meant cutting some really great material.
Initially storyboarding didn't happen in the traditional sense, and that proved to be a mistake. The team was very small, and we lacked the skills and budget to storyboard. Anyone that could have done it was already engaged in producing game content. Being a prototype, it was agreed to muddle through and make the best of what we had as it became available. This often lead to miscommunication, and were it not for the early voice recordings and the script, things could have gotten a lot worse. Having a limited budget to work with often meant corners were cut, and that lead to problems. Part of my job as Project Lead is to anticipate those problems before they happen, and if they do happen, to minimize the impact.
After Jennifer joined the team as Concept Artist / Illustrator and we had actual game content to work with, things improved considerably. We're now able to communicate effectively with storyboards and use game development tools such as Unity to visualize camera angles. Here's the partly-retrospective storyboard that picked up where we'd reached in this preview, and expanded the closing scene with the villagers on the bridge.
|'Grim Discovery' Storyboard|
With the script signed off, I contacted Sean Ruttledge, a UK comedian with whom I'd previously worked. Sean convinced me he could bring enough variety to the voices to get the job done for a prototype. Sean's early voice development and recordings really helped flesh out the characters, and proved an essential resource for Tom our animator to work against. Scratch voice audio is definitely something we'll do going forward.
Concept art was skipped because the resources weren't available, and we very quickly moved into production. Throughout the course of development, the lack of a dedicated concept artist became a real hindrance not just for cut scene production, but for the game as a whole. In time we addressed that weakness through recruitment.
Tom set to work animating the characters against Sean's lines, doing his best to translate the voice acting into waving arms and nodding heads. Working without scenes he'd render out video clips with proposed camera angles for us to review and iterate on.
All the while in-game content was expanding, and I was able to mockup scenes in game development tools and drop in the animations as Tom delivered them. With cut scenes driven by the actual game engine and programming, many aspects are driven by a scripted cut scene manager to provide control over events in the game world so that they may to coincide with the cut scene. For example, to be able to skip a cut scene by pressing the escape key, we need to ensure that the state of the game world is updated to reflect what happened ( but wasn't watched ) in the cut scene, for example a building catching fire.
Regular team builds allowed us to discuss and further refine animations and camera angles. The whole approach worked well for a while, but as the team's skill level rapidly increased and the game matured visually, it became apparent that the low polygon count and lack of facial geometry and rigging was going to act as a drag on quality. Around about the same time we launched on Steam Greenlight, publishing a few cut scene previews on YouTube. Community feedback started to come in that using only one voice actor wasn't ideal, and characters needed more unique voices. I called a meeting and as a team we reversed the earlier decision, endeavoring to increase detail in character geometry and add facial rigging so we could add facial gestures and lip sync, and expanding the voice actor roster.
Steam Greenlight was a pivotal event that changed Folk Tale from a prototype into a full game production. The new direction would add to the production schedule, but we were excited by what it meant for overall quality.
Everything started to come together in early 2013. Lighting was being tweaked and post-render effects added to the camera including color correction, ambient occlusion, bloom, and depth of field. Much of the shader tweaking was already done to support the main game.
I recorded end to end takes of each cut scene with just the final voice acting, and distributed that to Tom the animator who would add facial animation, Oskari the musician who would compose the soundtrack, and Joe the sound designer who would create effects to help sell the visuals.
We're pretty pleased with how things turned out. There's still improvement to be made, but for such a small team, what we've achieved is something we're really proud of.
Reviewing, Learning, and Improving Process
We've learned from our mistakes, and have arrived at a more formal production process. Having acquired two years of experience working with the game engine has really helped our understanding of what is achievable, and what is best avoided in future cut scenes.
Moving to a sandbox game presents an interesting opportunity to take what we've learned so far, and together with our improved process, tackle the task of dynamic storytelling. I can't wait until the game is released proper to write a follow up to this blog.