Voyageur Research

Idea Development Sketchbook page 8-10

I looked into one of the original uses for portage which was for transporting furs for trade across Canada. I did this as to better understand the process of portage and learn things about the voyageurs that could influence our final game (even though our game is about a peaceful, solo experience and not a gruelling work experience).

The most interesting things that I came across were about the typical day for these voyageurs; they worked 14 hour days for 6 to 8 weeks and often ended up suffering from a number of injuries or sicknesses. One fact that caught my attention was that they stopped rowing every hour or so so that the men could smoke a pipe which meant that the distance they travelled was often measured by ‘pipes’. I don’t think that we should let our character smoke a pipe in the game, but having a task/action that recurs at set intervals could be a subtle nod to this tradition.

Another neat action that we could make use of is the fact that they would use their canoe as a make-shift shelter at night and sleep under it. We discussed how we could use this and thought it would be cool to let the player rest for the night almost anywhere and have them use their canoe as a shelter when they do.

I also learned that there were sub-types of voyageurs for each portage, most of them simply sat in the middle of the canoe and paddled whereas a couple got to guide or steer the canoe and were paid more for it. None of these roles really apply to our game since there will only be one character on the portage but I did come across a role called The Express which referred to someone that got to travel in their own canoe carrying an important package/message at a faster rate. This was interesting to us at the time as we were considering the idea of having our player be delivering a package of their own. It is also because of this research that we came to our work-in-progress name of The Voyageur for the game.

Character Creation

Even though our game character is supposed to function as a blank slate as far as the player will know, we still thought it might be interesting to develop a personality and back story for him as it could help inform some decisions later on. Of course very little if not any of this detail will be apparent to the player but having this underlying context will keep the game streamlined.

I found an in depth character creation document online that is aimed at fiction writers but still has a lot of applicable content. it had the expected questions such as the characters’ age, location, friends and family but also deeper questions about their psychology, morning routine and significant events from their life. As we progressed through the document an actual character was forming and it was interesting to realise that some of these personality traits could easily justify or inform gameplay decisions. For example, we said that he used to go camping in the forest with his dad a lot when he was young which explains how he has knowledge of the equipment he’ll have with him. We’ve also explained his strong relationship with his dog as well as a reason for him to be out on this trip in the first place.

While obviously not entirely necessary for our game, by completing this character creation document we have some extra insight that could easily feed into functional design decisions even if the player is never explicitly told any of this back story.

Man Down

Part way in to phase four, one member of the group decided it would be best for them to leave and move to another group. The reason for this wasn’t for the reasons that we have previously struggled but rather that he personally felt he would do better in another group. Our group size of 4 was always pushing the limit and it did feel like the fourth member was getting jobs that, while definitely useful, were not entirely needed. Also his main role was going to be as an artist and he personally didn’t want to spend the rest of the year doing pixel art as one: he was not experienced with it, and two: he wanted a portfolio of more conventional art.

We had a discussion about whether we felt that this was a good idea and, even though we thought there would be merit in him staying, we understood his reasons for wanting to leave.

Now that there is only 3 of us, we have had to restructure the team a bit; I am now going to be doing most of the artwork alongside being the lead designer. I don’t have much experience with creating assets at a controlled level since my previous pixel art endeavours have all been one-off personals works but I think that with a bit of practice and research I should manage.

Clothing Research

Idea Development Sketchbook page 20

I worked with our concept artist to research appropriate clothing for our character that would both be practical and look good. I first found a site that listed things to or to not bring on a portage trip; this ruled out obvious things such as jeans but also brought attention to clever tips such as avoiding dark colours since they can attract mosquitoes. The list for things to bring was much more straight forward as it simply included warm, water proof and comfortable clothing.

Something that we wanted to achieve in terms of the design is to try and keep the character relatively ambiguous in terms of their features so that they would function as a simple vessel for the player to put themselves into rather than have a defined personality of their own. We applied this by focusing on generic clothing and obscuring the face with head-wear such as hats or hoods. At first we didn’t want to lean towards any specific gender but soon realised that it would be difficult to create a human form with a non-specific body shape. We decided to use a male figure as that would encompass a larger portion of our demographic but still we don’t want to over exaggerate any male features.

Once we had created a list of possible clothing items, we grouped some of them into whole outfits so that they could then be drawn up as some concept art. Below is some of the concept art that our artist (not me) produced based on the research.

  • The first design was definitely too casual and not appropriate for the activities that the character will be doing but I liked the simplicity and the colours as they would translate well to the pixel art style.
  • The second design iterated on the first by changing the hoodie to a more robust winter coat. While this change was for the better, we all felt that having green clothing could create an issue where the character blends into the forest background.
  • Design three focused on canoeing for its inspiration, looking at a middle-ground of safety and casual gear. The colour scheme is works well but we thought it might be best avoid red as it is not considered to be a relaxing colour.
  • The final design is a mix between snow and water proof gear; the overalls would be appropriate for wading through water and keeping warm in snow. Our research suggested to bring a different pair of shoes for canoeing and walking but we didn’t want to have the character need to change shoes every time they get out of the canoe so decided to use shoes tailored for the walking sections. In this case, we used snow shoes since our game will likely include some snowy areas. Also the hat is known in Canada as a toque and is obviously used to stay warm. This colour is best of the design as it uses calming colours that will stand out in the environment.

Project Proposal Document

When deciding how to present our Project Proposal Document for our game we wanted to use a format that would appropriately represent our themes. We almost immediately thought about some sort of tourist media such as a map board or, what we went with in the end, a leaflet.

We started by obtaining some existing leaflets to look at the types of content and the layout that they use to inform our own design. A lot of them featured a map of the area which is something that I was keen to include as it could display some information about the game in a dynamic way. Other important things to take note of were how they structured and the size of sections of text; how many pictures were used and of course how they were folded.

Since I am lead designer, my main contributions for the PPD were the actual content as well as giving guidance on final decisions for the layout. It was a fun challenge to balance the crucial content for a good PPD with the aesthetics of the leaflet format. We spent a lot of time testing and talking through how someone will progress through our document. We considered how it should be folded so that it would be intuitive to do so while also leading the viewer to certain information first.

The final design is as follows:

  • The leaflet starts with an appropriately themed cover that simply features the title along with a tagline. At this point it should appear like a leaflet for an actual place.
  • Once folded up, a small section of information is displayed to the viewer that outlines what our game in a concise way followed by a more detailed explanation below.
  • It can then be opened to its full size with a similar motion to a book. This side of the leaflet features the more aesthetic elements such as the map; to compliment this, the content talks about some of the art and design elements of the game.
  • Once flipped over we have the majority of the larger text elements such as Project Goals, Target Audience and an overview of the Technical Information.
  • When folded back down, the back side has contact information for each of our blogs as well as a road map for next semester that is referencing the common feature to include a map to the destination that the leaflet is about.

I think that our Project Proposal Document has turned out very well; I think that the format that we chose appropriately compliments the themes of the game while successfully displaying key information about our game in a dynamic way.

Pixel Art Testing

Before I had any concept art to reference, I played around a bit with some possible styles to use that varied in scale, colour and outfit designs. I experimented with referencing some classic outfits of the old voyageurs as some more modern outdoor clothing to get a range of designs. I liked the designs in the top left the best as I felt that they had the most versatility in terms of animation as well as keeping the overall pixel scale of the game down. The colours are possibly too bright but the shape was heading in the right direction. The other designs we either too small or too complex so that none of them would be ideal for the types of animations that would be required for our game.

Once I had some concept art based on our clothing research, I went ahead and recreated some of the designs in pixel art to get a feel for how the character in the game might look. My process involved importing the designs done by our concept artist into the software I was using (Aseprite), scaling the image down to get an idea for size, drawing over it to get the general shape/proportions and then touching it up with detail to get a final design.

These first set of four designs were based on the initial concepts that I was given.

  • The first design is based off the blue hoodie outfit. We liked the colours but didn’t think the outfit was appropriate.
  • The second was based on the green coat design. We didn’t want to use green as it might blend into the forest environment.
  • The third used the preferred blue colour with the more appropriate coat design.
  • The fourth design used another possible mustard colour.

I was happy with these as a first attempt but felt that we didn’t have the right outfit yet and that the scale was probably too large.

I wanted to draw up the dog companion that will feature in the game since we had decided that it would be an Australian Shepard breed. After some quick picture referencing, I came up with this initial design.

While not perfect for its detailing, this design certainly captures the charm that we need for this character and also looks like the right type of dog which is nice.

Using the dogs size as a reference for a scale, I drew up another character design based on some more concept art. Since this breed of dog is about 50 cm and a typical male is about 150 cm, the character needed to be about 3 times the size of the dog.

This was my attempt that used a simple 3 tone per colour scheme to for shading. At this size I could get plenty of shape and detailing in but my worry was that it would be too large and create too much work when making all of the assets. We were somewhat satisfied with the outfit at this point so I decided to try to scale the character down.

This scale was almost twice as small and obvious has much less detail. However, I think that you could get away with having the character at this size if required. I did get some comments saying that the dog now looks like a puppy rather than a grown dog and, while I can see this, I think this is partly from seeing the two sizes next to each other. The next move would be to find a middle ground for the scale and see if that happens to look the best.

This design was initially looking like the safest bet as it has a decent amount of detail and wasn’t too large. I think, however, at this point I was starting to lose favour on the overall design of the character and especially the pose that he was in as it didn’t accurately represent what he would look like in the game. I have to say though that I like this design for the dog the best because I put more effort into the colours and shading. I think this design was the preference but I still had worries that the scale was too big.

The reason that I am so concerned with keeping the scale down is that big assets such as trees, which are very important in our game, grow exponentially in size as the character gets bigger. For example a spruce tree can be 15 to 100 times larger than a human so if our character is only 40 pixels tall the tree will be 600 to 4000 pixels, but if he is nearer 80 then the tree will be 1200 to 8000 pixels in size. With this in mind, I tried to draw up a character design that better resembles how they might appear in the game. To do this I got Bill to stand in some generic poses at different angles so that I could scale them down and use them as a reference.

The above image shows my previous design and the image of Bill scaled down which gave me the design on the right. This only got as far as a rough shape because I wasn’t too keen on it but it was going somewhere in the right direction.

This time I added some 2 tone shading to create a front view of the character. The reason there is to versions is because I first made the design on the left but didn’t like that it was an even number wide as I think that odd numbers work a lot better most of the time. The design on the right isn’t perfect but certainly an improvement. Now that I had a design that look alright and was a relatively small scale, I wanted to try and redraw him looking in different directions since our game will likely allow for this types of movement.

It was quite a challenge to work out how to translate a design onto different orientations but after a lot of tweaking I came to these first few angles. I made sure that all parts of the design lined up such as the bag straps, hand height, shoe size etc. Now I needed to do the back views.

These also turned out surprisingly well since I was using such a limited colour scheme. The whole process was made a lot simpler since I had could use the reference images of Bill. Now that I had all 8 directions I could put them together into a spinning animation that looks like this:

I am overall very satisfied with this considering I had never attempted anything like this before. There are some things that maybe aren’t quite right in terms of the shading or positioning but that’s what first attempts are for. I think this was definitely worth doing to get a better idea for an actual character model and now I can go forward and iterate on other designs in a similar way.

Core Game

We decided as a team that it would be wise to establish the ‘core game’ that would function as the MVP (minimum viable product). This would include only the essential mechanics that would make up our idea and would be a basis to build upon. Once this is established we think that if we go ahead and make that version first, not only would we technically have a working game much sooner but we can also then add the next most important features and so on until we either deem the game finished or we run out of time. With this plan now in place, we started to nail down exactly what we thought should make up the MVP.

We started with a simple mind map as a means to quickly visualise our thoughts. Since our game revolves around portage (the sailing on and carrying of a canoe), the mechanics that would allow this to take place were the most important features. The player must be able to use the canoe on water; walk around on land; pick up the canoe; walk while holding the canoe; place it down in water and get back in to sail off again if they hope to progress at all. Once we have these simple but essential mechanics in a place that is both engaging and practical then we can move on to the next important features.

Art Style Drama

Towards the end of phase three, the team started to have different opinions on what art style we had envisioned for the game; this issue escalated until had a big discussion with our tutor to sort it out.

I personally had always seen the game with a pixel art aesthetic, partly because I am a huge fan of the style but also because I believe it would create an appropriate look that is doable with the time constraints that we have. I have made some mood boards for the style that are shown here. I believe the style would work because our game is all about a minimalist experience, promoting a stripped-back, less-is-more mindset which pixel art inherently complies with. In a metaphorical sense, this style could represent looking past a very precise and regulated facade to see the natural shapes within (which follows our games’ intentions) but I might be trying too hard at that point. Unfortunately, not all of the team where on board at this point and had other ideas for an art style.

Jamie was keen to push a low-poly 3D style as he was personally familiar with that style and thought that it also promoted a minimalist approach but with the ability to utilise more of Unity’s lighting and shader features. In my opinion, I didn’t want to go the 3D route as, while it may be ‘easier’ to some degree, I much prefer to use restrictions as a means to channel creativity.

Another style put forward was a more hand-drawn style to complement the more natural aspects of the game. I was open to this style but Adam was the one pushing for it the most as at the time we were assuming that he would be doing at least the majority of the art. We looked at a couple different variations of this style ranging from a realistic painted style to a sketchy hand-drawn variant. I was more keen on the sketchy style as I thought that it would bring a lot of personality and charm to the game but ultimately we couldn’t unanimously agree on anything.

Since we were each pitching a unique style that we were passionate about we had to get a third party to help us talk it through properly which in this case was out tutor. We talked through a lot of the benefits and negatives of each style using examples of existing games. For instance, one game that was suggested as a middle ground of each style was Knights and Bikes as it uses 2D sprites but in a 3D environment.

Having generally not been in a good mood that day, the whole conversation overwhelmed me somewhat and I wasn’t in the right mindset to be able to counter-argue my points so I made my leave quite abruptly after I assumed the discussion had ended. However, my team took this action to mean that I must have been especially upset that the game wasn’t going in the direction that I have envisioned (This was partly true). They continued the discussion without me so I don’t know exactly what was said; but when we next met up I found out that they had agreed to use pixel art and had given me a role with more creative control to try and keep me on board. While I appreciated this, these decisions weren’t made in the best circumstances or necessarily for the best reasons but at least we had an art style.

Rough Start

Phase four had a rough start because there was still a lot of uncertainty and different opinions that still needed to be resolved. I assumed that we were all in agreement on the core ideas of the game and only needed to sort out the art style, but that began to fall away a bit as people were having doubts about key aspects of the game.

One concern was that the game wouldn’t be fun, which is a valid concern, but to counter that an idea was to include a narrative of some sort on a whim. This caused a lot of disagreement as some of us were for and some were against this but no one had any proper reason for this other than preference. We had a couple of issues like this that looked like they were going nowhere are no one wanted to stand down on their ideas.

In the end we had to have a chat with our lecturer to try and sort things out but quickly people were saying that they wanted to leave the group. I was one of those people because I felt that we had reached a point in which our ideas were clashing and I didn’t want to compromise the initial game idea that I wanted to make. Equally, we all agreed that it might be easier to split because we had had a number of disagreements recently and they were slowing down progress too much. Eventually we did resolve most of the tension within the group by trying to establish more concrete rolls for each person. The idea behind this was to have a pipeline for ideas that meant that some people would have more of a say in different areas of the development. I took the roll of the overall design leader since the idea was originally mine so that I would be able to have final say for design but would influenced by factors put forward by the lead developer and artist.

This definitely helped to provide some structure within the team and allowed us to move forward each with specific tasks to complete. I now know the benefit to having specific roles within a group so that there is structure and we don’t get hung up while everyone is trying to defend all of their own ideas.

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