Lacuna Passage - Devlog #63 - Survival Sandbox and New Interior Lightmapping

Sorry for posting this a day late, but the wonderful and confusing tradition of the Iowa Caucuses put a wrench in my plans to post yesterday. This month we have been adding some crucial features to our Survival Sandbox mode, including the brand new unique map.

We wanted the Survival Sandbox mode to stand on its own with a different map built specifically to maximize replayability. Most importantly that meant creating a map that has entirely unique terrain formations. We are happy to say that this map is nearly complete. We still plan on adding more large rock formations that are not pulled from the NASA satellite data. Generally we like to lean more towards realism, but many of our sourced heightmaps are fairly sparse. Mars is incredibly geologically diverse on a macro scale, but on the micro scale it is mostly flat and empty. So while the following screenshots do have a decent amount of variation we will still add lots of cliffs and larger formations to fill in the gaps.

We are happy to say that this new map is exactly the same scale as the one we will eventually be using for the story mode. Nearly 25 square miles. This gives us a ton of room to work with for some randomization features that will be largely unique to the Survival Sandbox.

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Above you can see a top down view of the entire Survival Sandbox map. The frame labeled "All Map Points" shows you all of our possible points of interest that can be randomized during each play through. Without giving away too many surprises for when we launch on Early Access, here are some basics of how the randomization works:

  • The Pink labeled dots are potential habitat locations, nine in total. Every time you play you will start near a different habitat around the outer edge of the map. There will be three habitats spawned for each playthrough, but we use an algorithm to ensure that they always form a natural "path" across roughly one third of the total map area. In Survival Sandbox mode it is likely that you will need to make your way from one habitat to the next after you run out of supplies, so this placement algorithm should help keep the same map feeling fresh with a different path every play through.
  • The Red labeled dots are our Waypoint Stations, 16 in total for each playthrough. These are important navigational checkpoints that help you in many ways we will be detailing later, but as you can see in the sample randomizations above they don't always appear in the same locations.
  • The Dark Blue labeled dots are currently referred to as our "Primary Objectives". Each objective will be unique, but they all function as a sort of "oasis" in the vast Mars desert. They are carefully positioned hubs that can expand your overall search radius when found. One example might be a broken down rover that contains an oxygen refill tank and a battery for recharging your suit. As you can see above, we use another algorithm here to ensure varied placement of Primary Objectives.
  • The Light Blue labeled dots are what we call our more general "Points of Interest". These will be our most heavily randomized objectives on the map. They are smaller and less important than Primary Objectives, but the more you find the more likely you are to maintain your extended survival on the red planet. These might be emergency food storage caches, downed weather balloons, geological research plots, or any number of other mission-related sites.

In general, the quantity and frequency of the sandbox map objectives may be greater than what you might expect in a real Mars mission, but we feel very good about the variety this adds to the gameplay and the real sense of discovery you get when stumbling upon these locations.

As you can see, our Survival Sandbox mode is not entirely procedural, nor is it entirely static. We are using light randomization features to add variety for replayability. We are applying this method with our habitat interiors as well. There will be nine possible habitat interiors to match our nine possible habitat spawn locations. So, even if you happen to spawn at the same habitat location on the map, the interior of that habitat may not be the same as it was before. Since each of these nine interiors are still designed by hand it allows us to have a higher fidelity for the art and especially the lighting. We have reintroduced the use of lightmapping to have the most realistic rendering possible. Below you will see our first pass at using our new lightmapping and reflection probe setup. You might also notice a few shots where we have managed to swap the lightmaps to simulate a power outage which you may encounter on your mission simulation.

Next month I hope to be able to share some details about our "survival event" system which will effectively serve as your primary antagonist for the Survival Sandbox mode. We really want you to feel like Mark Watney dodging curve balls left and right that might drastically impact your chances of survival on Mars. Creative problem solving and resource management will be key to overcoming the odds.

If you have any questions let us know in the comments!

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.