DISCLAIMER: All of the content below is heavily conceptual and may never be in the game. All images and text are stand-in. Please read this before taking the images out of context!
Creating a game mode
or The Unbearable Lightness of Being (a Zombie)
Dead Harvest is back and although it was conceived to be a single week of focused development, just like last year, my work on it started much earlier.
As some of you might or might not know, Mark is the Lead Designer of Foxhole. The game is a fruit of his vision, together with Alkas, to create this crazy world where players can work together but are not forced to. All that’s to say that any changes and decisions made to Foxhole pass by the scrutiny of Mark before final implementation.
So when Mark told me I was going to lead this year’s Dead Harvest, I was honestly surprised. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been creating games since I was a kid, and even though I’ve taken a larger role in game design in Foxhole, this was the first time Mark ever told me the feature was all mine. With that in mind, what should I do?
Mainly on my mind: “HB. regardless of anything else you do. Do NOT. BREAK. THE. GAME”
And in order to do that, there were several considerations I had to deal with. The first one was that for this year we completely moved away from event servers and now all regions are integrated into World Conquest. That meant that we had to find a way for the undead gameplay to mix well with players fighting on World Conquest. This was not easy.
The Undead players, first and foremost, had to have some sort of objective. Otherwise, their gameplay could quickly become stale. The easiest way was, of course, to have them be able to win World Conquest. Either by destroying all Town Halls, conquering territory, killing a certain number of players or breaking down all the sacred trees on the map. (Yes, at some point I considered “Sacred Trees” as a viable objective.)
That was when I hit roadblock number one. You see, Foxhole is and will continue to be in the foreseeable future, a game about two warring factions trying to best one another. Two and only two. That means that even the code that checks which faction you belong to is a Boolean. A single bit that can only vary between 0 and 1. No more, no less.
That means that if we wanted the zombies to be able to actually win World Conquest, they would have to actually be a 3rd faction. Something not supported in code at the moment.
Could we change it? Sure! But here is the reality of game-making. Everything takes time. A lot of time. Making this simple change might seem trivial. But the amount of places in the code that makes the assumption that something is either Colonial or Warden is not small. Changing that would require a lot of checking, and rechecking, and re-validation of the code, and testing, and bug fixing. Definitely not enough time in one week to touch such a fundamental part of the game code. That was the impetus behind “Endless Night”. The mechanic of blocking both sides to win works twofold.
First, the World conquest does not end even if the undead reaches its goal. And since it has not ended, the game’s victory system does not kick in. That system is really dependent on one of the only two sides winning, and I didn’t want to touch it.
Second, if neither side can win, there is a tangible reason for Wardens and Colonials to work together. It also helps in maintaining the spirit of the past Dead Harvest alive.
Cool! That worked for me.
The second big consideration I had to contend with was a very clear one: “How to make playing as an Undead fun?”
Don’t get me wrong. Running around hunting for tasty brains is clearly fun. Last year, it was a blast. Still, each of the Accord’s matches was fairly short. Barely breaking in 2 hours, during the longest of them all. If I wanted this event to happen during World Conquest, that meant that players could potentially stay as undead for way longer periods of time. And no matter how fun it is to hunt down fools in Viper’s Pit, even that can get stale.
The main issue was that living players have an arsenal of interesting toys to play with. The dead horde, by its own nature, can only run and attack. Without the added possibility of using vehicles or weapons, I had to ensure undead playing felt fresh. We went for the level-up mechanic. The fact that it was an appropriation of last year’s system was a nice bonus. Time saved in the programming budget.
The concept was that if a player showcased a high level of skills, they could get access to different playstyles.
Originally we envisioned three kinds of undead. The basic run-and-kill zombie. One that could have a ranged attack. And one gigantic brute, with a powerful AOE slam. We had concepts, modeling, and even animations done. And then we hit another roadblock.
Foxhole’s player system is tailored to our normal gameplay. Those cool attack ideas up there? Since we have nothing in-game like it, we had not enough time to implement them. That gigantic brute? No way to do it without completely screwing up the player’s character and it’s animations.
In the end, I had to make a call. A very tough one. I wanted the undead players to have fun. To have something to work for. But these ideas were simply not feasible. Time to compromise. I would keep the idea of leveling up and evolving. This way players get a good sense of actually working towards something and we get to showcase the awesome alternate undead designs the art team created.
But this also meant working with what I had. If having unique attacks for each evolution was not possible, then I had to make each of them special in a separate way. I would scrap the special attacks in favor of different balancing playstyles.
The ranged undead who would have attacked from a safe distance instead got a huge speed boost. Faster than anything in the whole game. This way, a player would be able to quickly enter and exit combat, trying to keep yourself safe. The brute? Well, if I can’t make him physically larger on screen, I can certainly make him more armored. This beast now can take a lot of damage and can dish it as well. Changing the concept that the undead is frail and making them very menacing.
As you can see, sometimes sacrifices have to be made. I rather have a mode working and fun than to try implementing features that could potentially derail the whole project.
There was more, of course. Other big considerations I had to make to prepare for this whole mode being done in a single week. Do the living players have a catch-up mechanic? Do the undead? How long can this last? What if no one wants to play as an undead? How do the undead spawn? Do living players have anything exciting to do? (Yes. Yes, they do. The mech exists exactly for that. And it’s awesome)
Nevertheless, I don’t have enough space here to write it all. If anyone is ever interested in talking about the other crazy things I considered, just hit me up. In the end, regardless of the difficulties, we made a new Dead Harvest event. One that didn’t break the game that already existed. One that would be able to support itself through weeks instead of days. One that was fun for everybody playing. So if you like playing it, it’s only because a lot of love and sweat from a whole team of developers was poured into it.
But if you hate it, rest assured it’s only because one foolish pencil-named nerd was put in charge.
Mark really wanted to add a mech into the next Dead harvest as a fun goal/reward for the human players. The original name for the Centurion was the Paladin, I started sketching with this in mind: Strong, Thick, and Tanky.
After doing some sketches of mech shapes Mark and I liked the direction of a Naval Cannon on legs.
At this point, Anthony made a block-in of the selected sketch. I then started making 100 (really like 15) pages of notes and we refined the mech Till we got to the final version after a name change of the Centurion.
Centurions will be found around the world as relics.
Like most things in Dead harvest check out what's under the hood:
We had some fun ideas that never made it into the final spec like a custom shippable mesh and mech levels
The Cursed Undead
Most things regarding Dead Harvest often start from me having a break in work and just sculpting/drawing something to show to the team. The original idea of the mode was thrust into motion when I essentially made an undead torso mesh at the beginning of 2018. Since the art was done, it was pretty easy to start to feature creep an idea. "What would foxhole be if there were undead in the game?", "Wouldn't it be cool if undead could do x?"
This year we had a lot of cool ideas, one of which was that you had to harvest organs and equip them to 'evolve' into these undead states. This did not get very far into the design process as the undead will have no way to interact with things other than attacking.
We played around with size as well, but we couldn't implement it because they all share the one character skeleton and code, and to have varying speeds so that the big guys or fast guys wouldn't be sliding on the floor, would take a lot more work than you think given how Foxhole is built.
In the end we had to settle on the undead being the same size, but to change the silhouette we shoved some of the cursed rocks into their flesh to make them feel large and in charge
I also liked the idea of the undead leaving burning footprints as well, but it would take far too much dev time to implement
Overall, the undead came out pretty cool looking with the help of HB and some unique animations and idles.
Additionally, here are some random props that were made some of which will never be in the game.
Reflections, Visual FX and Guerilla Game Development
Dead Harvest is upon us! Dead Harvest and Halloween, in general, is one of my favourite times in video games. I have such fond memories of taking down the Headless Horseman in WoW back in the day. During the early days of Foxhole, I lobbied for Adam to model some pumpkins so we could at least add some spooky stuff during Foxhole's first Halloween. During the second Halloween, I snuck in a bunch of lore and painstakingly placed pumpkins around every one of the—at that time—8-10 maps. No one found any of it. It wasn't terrific anyway.
However, This is Foxhole's fourth Halloween and second Dead Harvest event. As is the case with Clapfoot, it's never enough to just repeat what we've done in the past, and we wanted to do something special this year. Because the scope of the event had increased exponentially, we also looked forward to making high-quality assets, and selfishly, I wanted to tell a cool (if small) supernatural story. There are a lot of little things hidden in Dead Harvest this year, many of which can be found in all the new visual effects, models and even SFX.
Foxhole is a game generally grounded in reality. No, it's not real, but we prefer a more real-world approach to how things might work. So there's no magic, no mechs, no demons, creatures, or boogeymen. There's a book called "Bitter Seeds" by Ian Tregillis that has all these things and more within the backdrop of WWII. It's really cool, but not what Foxhole is. So I never get to make magic effects or write supernatural stories at work, and it's something I love to do.
Let's break down some of the VFX made for Dead Harvest and maybe a little bit about how they connect to the broader thematic elements of Dead Harvest.
When we first started working on the Cursed Forts, there wasn't much thematic direction. Typically, we have gameplay and theme meet somewhere in the middle. In this case, we just built the theme entirely around goals for the gameplay. We'd mused about having zombie variants, and Adam blocked in some early models.
Using what we had so far, Julian whipped up some concept art (which you can browse below); the only thing we knew we wanted was some kind of magic circle around the Fort.
Universally, we loved the concept showcasing those black stones with red markings that creeped up the side of the Fort. What I liked most about it was all the etchings on stones and the marks around the magic circle. Taking inspiration from that, we devised a sort of fake runic alphabet. I was inspired by the Ogham alphabet. It's a dead language used primarily at the time to mark graves. People weren't necessarily using it to communicate with one another, and I thought this was perfect for Dead Harvest. Then, lore-wise, I worked backwards.
We didn't have a plan for how much we wanted to add; it was all very guerilla this way, and I had a lot of fun with it. Adam checked in his initial version of the cursed forts. He passed them off to me to add some final touches, and I knew immediately I wanted some of those onyx-looking rocks floating around it. Aside from that, it would be cool if the markings on the ground were coming to life, like its counterpart, the green protection ward.
Here's a look at the effect.
Creating attractive, shippable visual effects is a rare topic in the realm of game development. One day I want to do a tutorial to show how some of Foxhole's VFX are done. For now, I will say this is a deceptively simple effect to pull off. The only tricky part is maintaining a high level of fidelity while also making it adaptable to different surfaces.
The Ward effect that you'll see near some towns was also built with this in mind. I couldn't just build a flat effect. Because there's so much varied terrain and foliage in the wilderness, I wanted it to feel like they'd just thrown it down on top of the world.
It was suggested we use the old effect we had for borders, but I wasn't satisfied with that. The first few attempts fell flat too, it didn't feel like this powerful, magical wall. It needed to be physical, so I added some interactivity to make it really feel like you were passing through something.
To bring it into line with the story we'd developed throughout the making of the event, I added runes around the perimeter. Something like old superstitions or a salt circle.
Making sounds for Dead Harvest was an enormous joy. Just like with VFX, I got to make some spooky and weird SFX. Once again, the key is finding a theme and carrying it through. Tell me if you can make out any of the different samples found in the sounds of the Ward and Cursed Fort.
I hope you enjoyed this look into the thought process of some of the effects of Dead Harvest. If this interests anyone, I can do a tutorial or deep-dive into how FX are made from a more technical perspective.
Until next time, stay spoopy.