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Shadows of Doubt DevBlog #2: Finding the Game

Shadows of Doubt DevBlog #2: Finding the Game

Shadows of Doubt is a detective management/simulation game set in a procedurally gnereated and fully simulated city. As head of the police detective department, it’s your job to organise your sleuths and track down criminal elements before they strike again! Read previous dev blog entries here.

Hi all! In this 2nd development blog installment, I’m going to talk about the project’s development during the past year or so; the problems, how I’ve overcome some and am still battling others.

Truth is the development of this game so far has been tough. With most games you can develop mechanics and test them in a reasonable amount of time, from there you can start to hone and adjust until you have something playable. At this stage, you can be reasonably comfortable in what you have and proceed to add art, sound etc. With Concrete Jungle I had a pretty good prototype ready in a matter of months (admittedly after a long time trying different ideas), and something representing the final game quite accurately by the time I did the Kickstarter.

Shadows of Doubt has been much harder to develop because the entire premise of the gameplay hinges heavily on the integration of procedural systems. In order for the game to function as intended I need:

1) A whole city of citizens to play out their simulated lives. The game needs ways of ‘recording’ what happens, so the player can uncover evidence at a later date. I’ve got in-depth plans for this. The big one to tackle first being citizen memories/eyewitness accounts – who’s seen who, when, and where. This is actually a huge amount of data for the game to process, as it needs to record everything. 99% of the stuff it’s recording will never be seen by the player because chances are they have absolutely no reason to question Mrs Rogers, 83, living at Sycamore Terrace with her cat Percy. There’s probably no reason to uncover her credit card accounts or rifle through her trash. But the game needs to simulate it anyway because it’s all about open-ended possibility.

There’s that famous 3D open-world game notion; if you see a mountain in the distance, you can go there in person. In Shadows of Doubt, if you see a person in the distance you can go dig up a mountain of information on them.

The citizen simulation aspect of the game is working to a decent standard (this has been a large chunk of development time).

2) An AI killer to commit a murder -preferably with some kind of motive. They need to have some evasive ability (ie lie to cover up where they were should they be questioned). Right now nobody lies, so if you happen to question the killer, they’re like “oh yeah I was there, I totally killed them”.

3) A simulated citizen to find the body and report it. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Its initial implementation is basic and works about 75% of the time- because right now it’s possible that a killer will kill someone living alone (sorry Mrs Rogers), and nobody will ever find the body. In earlier builds, I overlooked that the killer could ‘find’ the body, which resulted in them reporting the crime as soon as they’d killed them. Combined with the inability to lie, this made for one very easy detective game!

4) It needs at least a semi-functioning management system where you can assign detective teams. This is where the player’s decision making starts to surface.

5) It needs an orders system which allows the player to interact with the world and the citizens. Eg. Questioning to see who a citizen has seen recently, where and when. Basically a way of gathering information, as well as other resources.

The classic evidence & string interface makes an appearance– just like in real life, it’s the best way to visualize connections. At the moment it’s a bit overly-complex and messy– it needs streamlining.

6) The game needs to introduce constraints and challenges to keep decision making relevant and interesting. This is something I’ve had to learn about through trial and error in previous game development adventures. Choosing who to question next doesn’t mean anything if you can just question as many people as possible with no consequences. Introducing constraints is the key to making those decisions mean something. The core one is time; citizens’ memories are constantly getting fuzzier, and public opinion may turn against you if the killer strikes again.

7) It needs a compelling hook to keep the player playing. In this case a progression system. Usually, the progression will work to ease the above constraints in some fashion, but in a way that makes progress feel real when in actual fact it’s more or less in-line with the game’s difficulty curve, giving somewhat of an equilibrium effect.

8) There needs to be peril. This is somewhat of a personal preference, but in most of my favourite games, there is always something important to the player at stake. Usually a risk of death of one or more characters that the player has been working hard to progress. In a game about catching murderers, it makes sense to have that risk of your agents dying- but the implementation is tricky since you aren’t directly controlling any combat/dangerous scenarios. One of my first instincts early in development was to have an ‘apprehend’ stage of the game where the aim was to capture the suspect- perhaps via a turn-based tactics minigame or similar. While that would be really cool, I feel like this is too big a commitment for an already ambitious project, so I’m going to have to find an alternate solution. I’m not sure what yet. Maybe the threat of citizens being murdered is enough. What I absolutely don’t want is have a risk of losing an agent without any input from the player- there’s nothing more infuriating than losing a favourite character because of RNG.

Once I have all of the above functioning, I have my game. It’s probably a bit naive for me to think this is as challenging as game development gets, but it sure feels like it!

It’s #7 that’s got me thinking recently- is the real hook of this game going to be the management-style progress system? Or is the hook simply the emergent story of the cases and ‘whodunnit’? Is it both? The plan was always the former, partly because even though procedural generation fascinates me to no end, I was not confident enough in it (arguably my implementation of it) to depend on it to tell compelling stories. Ideally, you’d still have fun managing your department even if some of your cases are super straight-forward and have no twists and turns. It’s still my plan to depend more heavily on the tried-and-tested mechanics of the management genre for the core experience, but as the emergent cases have been occupying so much of my time it’s impossible not to at least hope that they will add a lot to the experience. We’ll have to see.

Despite the above sounding probably way-too-ambitious for a small team, yet alone a sole developer, I’m having so much fun making this game! It is slowly getting there– at a snail’s pace, but it’s still going to take a little while longer before I’m truly glimpsing the light at the end of the tunnel in terms of playability. It’s more like everything is slowly coming into focus.

Til next time.

Shadows of Doubt: A Detective Management Game!

Shadows of Doubt: A Detective Management Game!

Hello everybody, I’m writing today to ‘unveil’ what I’ve been working on after Concrete Jungle. I write that in quotations because there’s really not much to look at yet. Truth is I’ve been working really hard to bring this idea to a prototype stage for the last year(!) That’s way longer than I wanted, but I think it’s worth it.

I’ve been working on a detective management game called Shadows of Doubt in which you deploy your agents to solve murder cases.

The city is procedurally generated, but not as you know it. Every street, every business, every citizen is different and fully simulated. They’re not just the mindless wanderers you find in most open world or large-scale games, nor are they static characters with a few canned lines to say. They have jobs, favourite places to eat and things to do, friends, relationships, enemies, and unique fingerprints. Within the myriad of simulated citizens is a killer- it’s your department’s job to find them and bring them to justice! What the game is essentially, is a very complex social simulation that happens behind the scenes, and an intuitive set of detective tools that lets the player interact with it.

Because every single citizen leaves a trail or where they’ve been, who they’ve been seen by and who they’ve interacted with, you’ll be able to dig into their simulated interactions at will. The game is capable of simulating 100s, or potentially 1000s of citizens!

My ultimate goal with Shadows of Doubt is to create a really engrossing, involving mystery game using a management-style progression system as a hook, as well as the emergent narrative of the procedural cases. Although the simulation behind the cases is extremely detailed and complex, I’m going to be working hard to keep the game as accessible and intuitive as possible. Some of my recent favourite indie titles have taught me how important having accessibility and clarity is.

The management mechanics lend well to this. Instead of searching crime scenes yourself, you’re a notch above; making important decisions like which suspects to question or shadow, which buildings to stake out and where to best spend this week’s department budget. As you acquire more evidence, you’ll piece together cases, eventually leading to arrests, and hopefully putting that killer away for good- and ranking up your agents in the process.

Your department is managed through a familiar worker placement system.

Your main enemy in the quest for ‘whodunnit’ is time; just like in real cases the first 24 hours is usually the most important. The evidence is constantly degrading, citizens are forgetting who they saw and when. Everything is becoming fuzzier- hindering your chances of acquiring incriminating evidence. You can pause the game at any point using the space bar, but orders and research will require in-game time. This keeps the focus is on your decision making, ratcheting up suspense while giving the player as much time as they want to make important decisions.

Pressure from upstairs will keep you on your toes. Progress on cases will bring rewards, such as cadets fresh from the academy or new upgrades for your department.

Each piece of evidence has an in-game folder/window. From this you can assign a detective team and queue context-sensitive orders.

Each piece of evidence can be assigned a detective team, which opens a contextual order tree. For example, if it’s an address you’ll get an option to acquire search access (failing that you may decide to invest in a costly search warrant). Alternatively, you could stake it out, or research its tenants or businesses. You can even research its security and remotely gain access to its electricity, phone lines, fire alarms or CCTV if your department is suitably equipped with the right tech. Each piece of evidence comes with a wealth of different options and approaches.

You’ll also have to balance public relations- releasing those crime scene photos could spur suspects to come forward, but at the cost of raising public panic: The case will be all over the newspapers. Evidence leaks could give the killer more information on how close you are, giving them a chance to avoid your agents. Maybe upstairs won’t be happy and may put more pressure on you for arrests or even cut your budget.

The classic corkboard and red string will be present to help visualize your active cases. I’ll talk a bit more about how the evidence systems work in future updates, for fear of this post running a bit long!

As you can see, the game doesn’t look like much at the moment- zero art assets have been done. So why start talking about it now? There are a lot of awesome looking detective games in the works as of late, and while I’m not in a rush to get to market, reading about them does make me want to share what I’ve been working on too. Even if it is just to get a foot in the door- or maybe an ugly grey prototype toe! Especially after a trip to EGX Rezzed last Saturday, where the indie scene looks as exciting as ever.  Starting over the summer, I’m going to be writing about this project more, and maybe even recording some development blog videos. I’m really excited to share the game’s development journey with you.

PS. Concrete Jungle fans fear not- I also have an update in the works. It’s taken me a long time because of my work on the above, so massive apologies about that.


I’m Alive!

I’m Alive!

Hi folks! Wow an update! Yes– I’ve failed miserably at writing an update every week this year. I’ve managed, what? About 3?! Well writing about what I’m doing remains a weak point, but at least I’ve been doing some work!

I’m pleased to say I’ve joined a great community of game developers at Bristol Games Hub. I’m finding it a great experience so far. Previously I was working from home, which was fine but full of distractions. Having a proper office space has worked wonders for my productivity.

As well as finally releasing Concrete Jungle 1.1.8 on Android, iOS and Mac, I’ve been busy on my new project. It’s still not really ready to show, but I thought I’d use this post to tease a bit about what you can expect in the form of posting some of my inspiration. I think you get the idea!


Game Ideas That Were Almost My Next Project (And Why They Weren’t)

Game Ideas That Were Almost My Next Project (And Why They Weren’t)

So, with my next project on the horizon I thought I’d dive into some of my previous ideas and talk a bit about why they weren’t chosen to be my next project. My actual next project remains under wraps for now, so this is a bit of a tease- but rest assured I think I’ve chosen correctly! I feel the need for a big disclaimer: None of the screenshots below are from my projects, they’re from various games that inspire me.

You can file most of these under ‘well of course not, that project would require a large team’. But I’ve always preferred to be ambitious with my ideas, so all of these were under serious consideration at one point or another.

A VR (optional) immersive sim/Stealth RPG.
Inspired by: Deus Ex, Thief, System Shock.

Thief is an incredibly atmospheric game- I would absolutely love to see something similar in VR. Bonus reason: Bows work really well with touch controls!

Case for: This year I’ve been experimenting a bit with VR after eagerly buying an HTC Vive. I’m aboard the VR hype train, and I think this would be my ultimate VR experience- there’s a tonne of potential for some really cool experiences with this tech. After some time and thought though, I think the industry has quietly decided VR is going to be a bit of an experimental space for a while. There’s a clear divide between the kind of games we’re seeing on these early VR systems and what most people spend their time playing. If I were to develop this it would have to be VR optional and being able to play through the game entirely using conventional controls would be a must.
Case against: The tech does need to mature and grow a bit more before we see what it can really be; the comfort is not quite there (wireless would be ideal), the resolution needs to be upped a bit in my opinion and the cost to entry needs to come down. It’s a really exciting start though- I can’t wait to see where we’ll be in 5 years. But even just typing about this and staring longingly at that Thief: The Dark Project screenshot makes me want to make this. Gah!

Concrete Jungle 2
Inspired by: Concrete Jungle, SimCity, Skylines
Case for: This would of been the obvious and safe choice. I’ve learned a whole lot and feel I could really build (no pun intended) on the first one with some cool refinements and ideas. I’d like to revisit making it more of a sandbox game, I’d certainly revise a lot of the mechanics and make the jump to 3D.
Case against: I’ve been working on Concrete Jungle for about 4 years straight now- I need a break!

A first person adventure/immersive sim where you play a front-man of an awful punk band and try to become famous.
Inspired by: Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, Burden of 80 Proof, Trainspotting

The Deus Ex mod ‘Burden of 80 Proof’ is a game about buying alcohol. It sticks out in my mind for being pretty special, just because it attempted to to capture a bit of ‘normal’ day-to-day life.

Case for: Uniqueness. I love story based games, and I feel there’s a gap in the market for more real life/down to earth/independent film style experiences. I really like the idea of setting this in a small British coastal town and having a small open world with some basic RPG elements. Keeping the focus on narrative and day-to-day life but having a bit more game-y-ness than your average walking simulator.
Case against: This was probably my #2 idea, failing mainly due to the practicality- hiring actors, mo-capping them in 3D etc was asking a bit much for my current situation. The main barrier to making what I envisioned was creating believable human NPCs. It takes a huge amount of time and money to get that anywhere near right, and I’m quite keen for the genre to move away from walking around empty rooms. I also find I get a lot of motivation from cool game mechanics, and the story-driven idea was not quite enough to quench my love of them. I want to return to this idea in the future with a small team and bigger budget.

A DayZ-esque survival game that uses the whole of the UK as a map.
Inspired by: DayZ, Arma
Case for: I love DayZ and huge open terrains to traverse. It’s a polarizing game, but I really admire the sparse but incredibly intense encounters- playing the original mod back in 2012 created some of my favourite gaming moments. I also realised I enjoy travel and orienteering in games- frantically trying to navigate Chenarus in the dark and getting lost was strangely entertaining to me. This idea was to turn both of those up to 11 by staging the game in a life-sized UK game world. My incredibly ambitious plan was to create an engine that would output the level data and terrain from OS map info.
Case against: As above, way too ambitious for where I’m at right now. Who knows how the multiplayer aspect would work- maybe some kind of server bubble system? I didn’t get too far into this side of things before abandoning the idea due to it being too ambitious. I am occasionally aware of my ideas becoming too much!

A Pub management game.
Inpsired by: FTL, The management game genre

FTL is one of my all-time favorite indie games.

Case for: I went through a management game phase earlier in the year. Plus I really, really like FTL and I wanted to create some unique twist on that concept.
Case against: Once I started gathering ideas I lost interest fairly quickly. When I started making games I promised the bread and butter of ColePowered would be innovation and trying new things. This didn’t feel that new. It’s a bit unfortunate as I’m not sure a pub management game actually exists outside of the casual mobile market? Even so, the core concept wasn’t unique enough to hold my interest.

So there we go, the projects that almost made it. I hope to be writing about what *I am* working on soon!