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December 24th, 2012

Godzilla's tail + F1 car + belt

Welcome to the Christmas 2012 edition of our blog. First off I want to apologize for the lack of TAGAP 3 trailer. As I mentioned in previous posts, this time around we approached the game design the pro-way by creating a fully functional vertical slice. While this is beneficial from development side (more that later), in terms of marketing and content creation it's, well, restricting.

You see, we have about 1.5 levels ready and finished, as opposed to three-to-four we had after an year in case of TAGAP 2. These 1.5 levels may be ten times more polished, but it's still very narrow scope of content and doesn't really provide much variety in terms of audio-visuals. And I feel that when you make a video debut, you have to have more than one level to show, otherwise people might start to think the entire game will look like that.

But wait! While we don't have a trailer to show, here's a new screenshot! This time you get a glimpse of what space looks like in interstellar flight – and realize that even in space, waiting rooms exist.

TAGAP 3 Holiday 2012 Screenshot

(this is actual gameplay footage)

However, we did cook up a video for you guys; Our very first Weekly Penguin video! Given the fact I have quite a few of electronic penguins toys that goof around, we will very likely have more in the future.

What I'm working on right now?

Well first off the vertical slice testing I mentioned earlier is paying off in spades. From bigger things like AI behaviour in masses to small tweaks in weapon balance, we've made plenty of progress in tuning things up. In fact, except for getting the weapon balance right – monstrous task that will continue till the day TAGAP 3 launches – we're pretty much done with testing the majority of gameplay elements. With TAGAP 2 I wasn't able to make such claim until perhaps three years into the development, but with vertical slices we managed to do it in one and a half! Now I totally see why most big league developers create their triple-A products this way; It just works.

The biggest delight in this process is seeing the entirety of the gameplay in place. Before this we only had isolated elements, but now we finally see it all as a whole – at once. And the best bit is that it all – new animation engine, the details, new weapons, enemies – work well together. There are balancing issues, of course, but jumping around feels good, fighting enemies is fun and it feels fresh. It's a great morale boost, honestly, seeing over an years work paying off in such way.

One interesting example how vertical slice testing was beneficial for balance specifically were the Pulsegun-wielding officer penguins. When I created the enemy, I obviously tested them in a mini-sandbox, mostly one-on-one. In that scenario they were fun, but for some reason they were pure pain in the actual level. Thanks to focused nature of this test – one single level instead of half-a-game – I was able to pinpoint the problem fast.

And what made the difference? 100 milliseconds, that's 0.1 seconds, in weapon charge-up time. It's just enough time to give you the extra reaction time needed when one of these baddies comes out of nowhere while you are fighting hordes of other enemies. At this time I also realised we needed to start ramping up sound effect production and mixing as well; You see, in fast-paced action games, be it Devil May Cry or TAGAP, I personally take my counter-action-cues more from sounds than visual telegraphing of moves. And in order to balance things proper, we need both in place. Which brings us to...

Sound effect recording begins

Now, TAGAP 3 had plenty of sounds in place six months ago already, majority of which were either purchased (from The Recordist and 1SoundFx.com) or based on free assets via freesound.org. But every single sound effect being re-done for TAGAP 3 – we want the game to sound as fresh as possible – freesound can't cover it all, our budget can't handle buying the rest and some stuff we need just doesn't exist!

Our first recording session took place on November 29th and this being our first sound effect session – which is very different in execution from voice over recording with which we are familiar with – we started with the easiest possible subject; Mechanisms. There are multiple reasons why we chose this subject. For one, we don't need to worry about electricity as we would've with motors and hums, nor did we need to worry about big sound dynamics differences like with things breaking up. Just things that make noise while they move and that was perfect for the trial experience.

Which brings me to the title of this blog post. Believe it or not, that's a sentence from eMail correspondence between me and Petja regarding TAGAP 3 sfx recordings. Petja asked me the following day what sounds, if any, I had implemented to the game. Obviously I got plenty of mileage from the recordings, and I will for the long time, so I gave him the list. And on that list, was one of the best sentences I've ever written;

Commando rope = Godzilla's tail + Formula car + belt

What the heck it means? That the sound of commando rope – similar to those tactical repelling ropes seen in TAGAP 2 – is made of the following; Handling the tail of a battery-powered Godzilla toy (for the rope ballast impacts), wheels of a wind-up toy F1 car spinning (for the rope pulley mechanism operating) and a fabric belt screeching through its metal buckle (the funky penguin ziplining along the rope). Getting creative with the assets like this is a delight, to say the least!

We recorded the session as a video as well and once we have several of these in the can, so to speak, we will post them as 'making of TAGAP 3' features. This one was pretty tame and there is crazier stuff to come (baseball bat, meet the television!).

Soundtrack

Also starting to shape up; The soundtrack. Not only has Petja composed the first two tracks – one in-game track and the first demo versions of the TAGAP 3 Theme Song – but the music engine itself is shaping up after the major enhancements. You see, the music of TAGAP 3 is 'properly dynamic'; Where-as previously the dynamics of it came from swapping between tracks, like between boss anthems and in-game songs, now the game songs themselves have two halves.

One is the 'idle version' and the other the 'action variant', the engine handling the cross-fading between the two depending on the needs. What this means in practice is that the music will reflect happenings better than it did previously. For example the music will ramp up when you enter a new section and turn more mellow again when the area is cleared. Also, since we now can have (skippable!) in game cinematics, we can force the music to tune down when, say, a conversation takes place.

There's actually a non-game benefit to this as well. The songs of the two previous TAGAPs were intentionally steady rides with very little variation in terms of dynamics. While it was perfect for the gameplay, it meant slightly less interesting stand-alone albums. But now that we intentionally have big dynamic range within each song we can mix the downloadable soundtrack album into an interesting ride. More on this as things develop.

On gaming front

The grand game season being upon us, I've spent the last few months going through this year's heavy hitters, the triple-A monsters dominating the majority of the gaming market. I just finished Assassin's Creed III and Halo 4, with a couple of interesting back-log titles – The Darkness II, Wet and Serious Sam 3 – in the between. Right now I'm getting wrapped up in the interesting interactive storytelling of Telltale Games' magnificent The Walking Dead adventure titles, while I just past week finally started Fallout 3. Yep, that's what happens when you have such a wide taste when it comes to games and so little time to actually play them.

From the so called triple-A franchise titles Halo 4 was the most interesting one. It's good and solid game in itself and despite being the opener of a new trilogy, it's a solid stand-alone experience. That said, the biggest strength of the title lays in the future potential. In fact I've compared it to the recent Doctor Who episode Asylum of the Daleks in that regard; It's an awesome ride in itself, but the best part is that it lays the groundwork for potentially the most interesting episode since the beginning of the series. Halo 4 isn't without its flaws, sure, but it managed to feel both familiar and fresh, minute-to-minute gameplay is very solid and I genuinely want to see what happens next – all without relying on cheap cliffhanger endings.

Halo 4, by the way, totally confirmed I was on the right track with my obsession to re-create all the sound assets for TAGAP 3; Despite most of the weapons being identical in function in Halo 4, the completely re-done assets made them all seem fresh. Heck, even the classic assault rifle we've been wielding since 2003 had a new feel to it, despite mechanically working just like it always has done.

All this said, I still have Far Cry 3 to go through, so I can't crown Halo 4 the winner of the season releases. I mean, come on; Far Cry gameplay, delightfully insane Vaas and eating mushrooms? Sounds like a winner! Unfortunately the game got stuck in Christmas mail jam 2012, so I likely won't be getting to it until 2013.

But that's it for now – and for 2012. And since the world failed to end last week, we'll see again in early 2013. Have a peaceful holiday!

Until next time,

Jouni Lahtinen, the head penguin