Lacuna Passage - Devlog #51 - Keeping up with the times (Unity 5 and Steam Early Access)

Since this is our first true non art-related development update since TIMEframe was released, I felt it fitting to reveal some pretty big news. Most immediately important is that we are updating Lacuna Passage to Unity 5. Some of you following us from the very beginning might remember that the original prototype of Lacuna Passage actually started in Unity 3. We moved to Unity 4 to take advantage of some of its new features, and we’re doing it again with the switch to Unity 5.

So how will the game benefit from the upgrade? If you are a developer, or just really interested in the nitty-gritty details, you can check out the full Unity change list here. Many of the updates made to the engine we will benefit from passively without any additional work on our part. These include things like multi-threading performance improvements, loading improvements, physics calculation improvements, a 64 bit editor (finally!), and much much more. We are already impressed with how well the game is running in Unity 5 and how quick it was to upgrade.

 Making progress on our material previewer with Unity 5's new physically-based rendering

Making progress on our material previewer with Unity 5's new physically-based rendering

However, the most exciting change for us will be switching to Unity’s new physically based rendering model. Since the beginning of Lacuna Passage we have been utilizing our own shaders which were designed with Shader Forge. Now, with the introduction of the new Standard Shader in Unity 5 we will be able to simplify our art pipeline while also drastically improving the rendering quality of the final game. Before, where we were using custom shaders, it was very difficult to get our texture previews in our art applications to match the way that the textures would be displayed in-engine after being imported. This meant hours of tweaking, re-importing, and fiddling with settings until we were satisfied with the result. We were trying to manually approximate real-world materials like aluminum, steel, and plastic. But with the new physically based rendering system we can simply select real-world material presets as a starting point and see exactly how the textures will be rendered before we even import them into the game. It will take some time to adjust to the new art workflow using the new versions of industry standard applications like Quixel’s DDO, but we are confident that it will have a huge affect on our development efficiency and quality over the long haul.

That being said, the move to Unity 5 is not the only big development change that we are currently undergoing. Since our Kickstarter campaign we have kept a close eye on Steam’s new “Early Access” sales model. This option allows developers to sell access to games that are still in active development. We never really considered that Lacuna Passage would be a good fit for this option, since our plan for the game was heavily driven by a narrative experience. It’s difficult to sell people early access to a game with a story if the story isn’t fully implemented yet. We didn’t want people to run into half completed story lines, or story lines that might change completely before the game was finished. Over the last few months we have been watching other Early Access games like The Long Dark very closely, and we think we may be able to adopt their approach.

 Taking inspiration from other sandbox survival games like The Long Dark

Taking inspiration from other sandbox survival games like The Long Dark

Now, before I explain further, I want to make it clear that this should not be cause for alarm. We would never consider Early Access purely as a way to squeeze money out of the game before it is finished. We simply feel that we have failed our backers in the sense that we have already far overshot our original release estimate, so we wanted to investigate any option we could that would allow people to play the game sooner rather than later. Our consideration of Early Access is a compromise. A way to let people see some parts of the game sooner while we finish all the features we originally promised.

So, what would an Early Access version of Lacuna Passage look like? The example I gave earlier of a game called The Long Dark is something we are looking to model after. The Long Dark is a post-apocalyptic survival game which will eventually have a story mode. In Early Access they are focused almost entirely on the root survival mechanics of the game and art development. We think that this could work well for Lacuna Passage. Our thought right now is that we will put all story development on hold in an attempt to put out a sandbox survival mode on Steam Early Access. We don’t have a date for when that will be, but the important thing is that you will get to play Lacuna Passage sooner and be part of an active community contributing to the development of the final game.

 Players of The Long Dark will find familiar systems in a future Early Access version of Lacuna Passage

Players of The Long Dark will find familiar systems in a future Early Access version of Lacuna Passage

We may have originally underestimated the power of a purely survival-driven game mode. After playing games like The Long Dark we feel that a survival sandbox could stand on its own and enable us to make better design decisions for the final game based on the feedback that our backers and Early Access players will provide. Obviously there are still a lot of things we will need to work out before this happens, but we want to be completely transparent with all aspects of development. In the coming months we will outline our plans for what you can expect to see in an Early Access release. We want to hear your thoughts and suggestions as well. If this is something that our backers overwhelmingly disagree with then we will seriously reconsider, but we think it will be a win-win for everyone. Thanks for reading, and we will have more details soon.