A Pixeled Face Lift

We have some exciting announcements for Chained coming soon, but we wanted to first highlight some work that’s been happening behind the scenes. We’ve hit that point with the project where resources can start going into smoothing out edges and upgrading art in preparation of release later this year. We’ve had the honor of hiring @kokuya28 to draw three beautiful portraits of our stars for promotional materials and icons that we then turned into pixel miniatures for in-game.

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Seeing as the portraits are well over 3k pixels tall/wide a piece, we recreated each one as pixel art to use in game at 2 different sizes. The larger ones fitting onto a 148x148 canvas will be used for the main menu art as well as mid-sized icons where needed, and the 2nd set in 80x80 canvases are for the dialogue boxes.

They look tiny here, but they nestle next to the dialogue boxes perfectly.

They look tiny here, but they nestle next to the dialogue boxes perfectly.

The smallest size has made creating various expressions for the trio significantly easier, and we want to match the amazing performances given by our voice actors. The original boxy design works great for the gameplay, but when it comes to conversations, they didn’t match what the player was hearing or feeling.

The new portraits add such a nice touch and really pull the scene together.

The new portraits add such a nice touch and really pull the scene together.

Upgrades Galore

One of the most common things said in the beta test feedback received was that players wanted to be able to upgrade Cole’s apartment / computer as the story progressed. This was unknowingly something that had been planned at the beginning of development but it was unfortunately side-tabled due to time constraints. After hearing that it was something more than a couple of people wanted it was added back into the pipeline and completed shortly after the beta concluded.

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Players can now earn tokens for completing objectives key for progressing the story and spend them to upgrade approximately 20 different pieces of furniture and fixtures in Cole’s apartment. Things like desks, pictures, tables, the TV, and even the wallpaper go through a series of transformations to bring the space from a sloppy bachelor pad to a well-furnished living space. The examples below are some of various initial and final forms these can take.

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Much like skills gained to fight Scout, these enhancements will be earned over the course of the Cole’s story and will hopefully provide additional motivation to see the journey to the end. I’m pretty happy with how they turned out and glad to have another excuse to showcase the project’s unique and warm art style. Lots of work is going into Chained based on the feedback that everyone provided and we’re very thankful that people were so willing to share what they wanted to see added.

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Beta Testing

Link to the beta signup: https://www.studiodigitalcaffeine.com/beta-signup/

Update! Signups for Chains’ beta test are now closed. We received over 100 submissions and we’re working hard to put the finishing touches in place. We’ll be selecting our beta testers soon and sending out access to the download on Sunday February 3rd.

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Testing is a huge step in any project and it shouldn’t be left until the last minute. Ideally you want to be getting feedback from outside sources at multiple phases of development. Identifying a critical flaw in your design isn’t going to do you any good when you’ve built the rest of the game around these core systems that need to be fundamentally changed. You should have people play your prototype before any additional work goes into fully fleshing it out. Beta testing in particular should be done as a wider sweep when you’re close to release and feedback on finer points like the in-game tutorial, shop/upgrade prices, and other general systems that have been added into the core experience. If you’re game relies on servers to run, this is the time to make sure a wider range of players don’t have connection issues from a variety of machines/devices and locations.

For chained we’re testing the first 5 chapters of the game. It can be hard to properly assess how tough your own game is when you’ve built it from the ground up so this type of feedback is absolutely critical at this stage. Another thing we’ll be looking for is any missed bugs. When you’re building and testing, you always know what to do, where to go, and what to do. You need more people fumbling around in your game running into things you always avoid, places you don’t think to walk to, and mashing buttons in ways that were never intended.

The First Trailer

It’s really exciting to start showing the project off in video like this. There’s something deeply satisfying when a game gets to this point and you see all the individual pieces start to come alive as they meld together.

Full Speed Ahead

Happy Autumn! A considerable amount of work has been done since the last post and I wanted to give a quick update on the status of the project to bring everyone up to speed! We’re pushing for completion in January, so there will be a lot of media and announcements before then!

Story Integration

8 out of the 9 chapters for the campaign have been programmed completely, including mapping out their respective cut scenes with text, movement, and voice over work. The project in it’s entirety is playable from the beginning through the cue-card for chapter 9. There’s only a couple art assets left to piece together and drop into place, and then it’ll be time to let the credits roll.

Hacking/Solving

The core of the hacking has been in place for longer than anything else, and it’s been refined and built upon heavily over the summer months with Cole’s abilities and Scout’s attacks woven in. The next piece to get into place here is going to be really going to town on the visuals and making it pop. The effects of Cole’s skills in particular are going to be fun to build out; I really want them to feel devastating when they’ve been upgraded all the way and unleashed on the AI. I’ll be posting some GIFs soon showing and looking for some feedback from the team.

Sound and Music

I’m doing a lot of polishing with the audio right now (FL Studio), specifically Scout’s bleeps. bloops, and battle cries as he scuttles around the screen and gets in the way. A while back Berry did some work for looping the tracks which was a huge time saver. I’ve also enlisted another music artists to record additional work for some of the cut scenes.

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Vocal Expressions

After completing the script for Chain's story back in April, I really wanted to give it something extra. I listen to a lot of podcasts throughout my day, so it seemed the natural next step to find voice over actors. I’d like to welcome Lucas Webley and Gina Coyle to the team of growing talent on the project! Both have impressive resumes that can be found on the ABOUT page and have been amazing to work with. Their voices are really helping this game come to life.

 

The process of finding , I reached out to a couple of indie voice over studios, but everyone seemed to be booked out for several projects. I easily wasted a month waiting to hear back about schedules and when Chained could be fit in, so I started looking elsewhere online and stumbled upon a Voice Over community on Reddit. It seemed active so I put together a listing and posted it. In retrospect, I should have done some things very differently; I got slammed with replies and requests for more information almost immediately. If you’re thinking about doing something similar I’d like to share some advice to make the process smoother.

1. Set clear deadlines for submissions. I didn’t expect so many people to be interested and had to awkwardly cut off submissions for Cole’s role. I ended up setting one for Melody’s since a couple of people were traveling and I was willing to wait. (Paid off!)

2. Provide a snippet of the script. I didn’t require people to read lines for the audition, but many volunteered to record pieces and I had to quickly get an excerpt and edit my original post. It was really helpful to hear them reading the actual lines and definitely helped make the decisions easier. Some sent links to their online portfolios which was also fine. (How I found Cole’s voice)

3. Be clear about what kinds of voices you are looking for. Provide a description about the characters so people know what to go for if they decide to record an audition. Even a small amount of direction can make for vastly different results.

4. Give an email address for submissions. Given the number of private messages I was receiving about all of the above, it became a nightmare to keep things organized with Reddit’s mail system. I also couldn’t receive voice files directly and ended up having to give an email address anyway.

Send Out the Scout

Designing attacks to be used against the player for a puzzle game is challenging to say the least. Players expect a certain level of predictability and it's difficult to come up with ways to push back against their progress without making it feel cheep. I've broken all of Scout's attacks into two categories: Disruptive and Preventative. Disruptive attacks have an immediate effect on the state of the chain being solved, such as swapping the place of two tiles in the chain. (Seen below) These have a high impact, so they're used sparingly to avoid player frustration. It can be fun to reign chaos for awhile, but used too often and they create irritation.

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The second category of attacks are the Preventatives. These are designed to make you quickly rethink your strategy and flow on the fly without breaking the action. In this example, Scout is attacking a tile to switch the controls of a single tile. While this won't immediately break the part of the chain already solved by the player, it will cause a delay in your solution if it lands in the right place on the board with minimal effect to player moral. As you progress through the story of Chained, Scout's power only grows as he develops new attacks to slow you down and break your progress.

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Set Yourself Up

The last chapter progress update I gave was finishing chapter 3 out of a total of 9. (Back in April) As of today I've finished scripting the cut scenes for chapter 8. There's been lots of work going into other parts of the game, but I'm feeling really good about completing the story sections so far. I wanted to take a moment and talk about my physical setup at home and my organization process for tasks. 

I dump EVERYTHING into a Google spreadsheet so I can access and work on it from home or take notes my phone if I'm out and about. I'll make separate tabs for different aspects of the project and I usually find it easy to organize what I have there. One tab is for the over all goal and high points of the game, another is for making a list of everything specific I need to build, and I check it off and add a date as it's completed. I make the tasks as small as possible so that when I sit down to work I know exactly what I want to work on. Plus, it's easier to stay motivated when checking off 3 or 4 things sometimes in a single day. Tasks are broken down into art or coding types, so if I just don't feel like programming on a certain night I can easily grab some art tasks to bust out.

This might not work for everyone, but I like this Excel-type format because I feel like I can do everything in it. I have a one tab that calculates rewards received based on various factors from hacking/battles with formulas, a tab for tracking any money I've spend on the project for a website, email addresses and contact lists, several tabs for character dialogue sorted by chapter, and a tab for writing pseudo-code on the go, etc.

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I would also argue that huge piece of organizing a project is keeping a work space clear and distractions at a minimum. With a duel monitor setup it's easy to fall into the trap of throwing Netflix or Hearthstone onto the side screen and trying to program on the main one. Nights where I've done this, I might as well of just sat in the living room and watched TV because it would have been the same. I was significantly more likely to make mistakes in lines of code, wasting yet more time later to fix them. With the exception of a stern-looking Ganondorf Amiibo for motivation, I've removed all decorations and nick knacks from my desk, treating my space like a professional work station. Noise-canceling headphones and programming playlists exist for a reason, and if I could, I'd list them in the game's credits as executive producers.

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Feel the Power

If Cole can hope to stand his ground against the AI entity named Scout, he's going to need some firepower to do so. Scout was designed to become stronger over time, beating back cyber threats and shutting them down.  He's supposed to be the ultimate digital guard dog, but we're not going to play by his rules. Through skills and upgrades, Cole can mod his hacking program in an arms race to one-up the competition. Some of the upgrades will push what you earn from completing chains, and others will outright feel like cheating. (Hey we're hackers here alright?) 

I'd also like to take a moment to welcome to welcome a new artist to the team, Franco Gonzalez. Some of his work on the project can be seen below, mixed into in the game's upgrade shop. You can read more about him and check out his other work on the ABOUT page.

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A Portrait of Color

Although development didn’t officially start until January, much of the art in Chained had existed since mid-2017. I was kicking around some new ideas and trying to find a style for my next project, but I was getting really frustrated. I had a page full of sprites and characters I didn’t like, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I started taking another look at my color pallet, and knew it needed a big overhaul. After 3 days of studying other pixel artists online, I finally narrowed down my pallet to just 20 colors. Applying them to the existing art helped a little, but with so few colors things ran together a little when they were combined into a scene.

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Around that time a friend at work had purchased a PS4, and I was looking through my game library to see if I could lend him anything he might like. I gave him my copy of the Borderlands collection since he hadn’t played any of them before, and told him that it’s cell-shade style was something everyone should enjoy at least once while blasting through a wasteland. It made me wonder if I could apply something similar to what I had created so far, so I threw it on some objects and fell in love with it right away. I really think it helps the distinct pallet stand out, and as a bonus I can use bright colors without washing out a scene. The only thing that’s been a pain so far is adding it to characters with 20+ unique frames of animation. If I use this style again in the future, I’m definitely going to setup a shader in photoshop to do this for me.

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Talking Through It

Along with the completion of development for Chapter 3, all of the core elements for dialogue have been created as well. I always forget that something so simple can be so complex until I remember that the design document calls for portraits fading in and out as the speaker changes, support for keyboards, controllers, and touch screens to advance the text, mapping out emotions that need to be displayed over portraits, a system for tracking how many lines of text are in this conversation so it knows when to end, and popups in case you need something to display as a text message instead of something face to face.

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It’s so important to design these things to be modular. Creating a rich system to display all of this should be easy to transfer into new conversations, not a burden on your time. Here I’m using one main variable called "global.conversation" to track the progression of the text and base everything else around it. When a button is pressed for the next line, everything runs a quick to check to see if it needs to change its image or create something new. For example, all I have to is create a line saying that at this point Cole is talking and he’s mad. Everything else takes over and knows that the character portrait should change to display Cole if it isn’t already. Because we’re setting "global.emotion" (a variable for tracking character reactions) to “1”, it knows that a value of 1 means create the effect for anger and then clear itself out. Stuff like this has let me create long and complex conversations in just a few minutes by simply mapping out these key pieces of information.

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Chapter 2 is now complete.

 Fleshing out the Chain's seconds chapter was a real test in how well I had built the systems of my game so far. How easy is generating new content and plugging it in? How confusing do things get when whole environments change based on a single set of variables running in the background? Do things from the first chapter interfere in unforseen ways? Since much of Chained takes place in one constantly changing room, I didn't want to keep making the same environment over and over to match the story's needs. I wanted to create a single room and have it change as needed through as simple methods as possible. If I want to change the time of day for example, all I have to do is modify a single variable called "global.weather" and the game will load different lighting in front of windows, turn the rain on, darken the sky, turn lamps on inside, etc. It's amazingly convenient now that it's in place, even though it was definitely a labor to set up. For example, when I'm working on some dialogue between two characters and decide that it should take place late in the day instead of mid afternoon, all I have to do is change a single number and game does the rest. I would highly recommend people trying the same for their projects.

Press A to begin

Chained is at it's core, a puzzle game wrapped in a story. When a security software developer is put out of work by an AI designed to make his job obsolete, he fights back with the only thing he knows how to: hack. Today marks the first major milestone as the 1st chapter of this story is completed.

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