The Road to Vertical Slice, Part 1 of 5

One of the practices I’ve borrowed from AAA games is rigorous scheduling toward regular milestones. My self-imposed deadlines on Eldritch helped me manage the scope of that game and ship it ahead of schedule, and I aim to be equally disciplined in the development of Die Augen der Welt. To that end, I have given myself a deadline of May 31 to complete a “vertical slice”, a demonstration of all (or most) of the game’s systems in a representative level.

Sometimes in AAA game development, a level will be built specifically for the vertical slice, especially if the milestone build may serve the additional purpose of being taken to trade and press events to demonstrate the game. (This is one of a few reasons viewers may see early footage of maps which wind up absent from the final game.) But the schedule for Die Augen is ambitious, and I don’t expect to have time to make a throwaway map, or even to redo the work done during this milestone period. What I build this month needs to be something I can ship next year.

Until just earlier this week, I’d only had a loose idea for the player path and narrative structure of the game. But with the vertical slice milestone looming, I needed to select which level (or levels) to build; and that meant figuring out what all the levels would be. It stresses me out a little, committing to something as fundamental as the master list of levels in a game. The sequence isn’t immutable, but other decisions will be built on top of it. The cost of changing any of these assumptions will continue to grow from here. But it was a good exercise. I charted out the game from intro to ending, selected the vertical slice levels, found and resolved some narrative discrepancies, and got excited all over again about what I’m going to spend the next 6-8 months making.

I chose to develop a contiguous sequence of three levels from the first half of the game: two missions and one non-combat interstitial space. (The screenshot at the top of this post is the blockout for the first of these missions, after two days of planning and building.) Trying to build three maps in one month may be too aggressive, but I’ll need to know that so I can scale the rest of the game accordingly.

I felt more productive than usual this week. In addition to level planning and building, I implemented a few small features that will be needed for the vertical slice. Locked doors may now have numeric keypads, as an orthogonal entry system to swiping a keycard or hacking the lock. On the tools/editor side, I created an easy interface to wire switches to any number of doors, lights, or other electric objects.

I also added an “incoming call” mechanic where the player can choose to take a phone call during a mission and enter a conversation. Not the most exciting thing in its own right, but it implies an unusual choice and constraint about the writing in this game. Die Augen won’t have voice actors talking in the player’s ear during gameplay. All dialogue will be delivered through the conversation interface. And because the conversation interface is modal (i.e., it pauses the game and blocks all other interaction), I want most dialogue to be opt-in and skippable. If the player doesn’t want to stop playing the game to talk to someone, that’s a valid choice. And if the player chooses to ignore a conversation, they shouldn’t miss anything critical (e.g., a door keycode or a primary objective). This might lead to strange cases later where the dialogue assumes a prior conversation took place when in fact the player skipped it; but I’m betting that the players who skip the former conversation are likely to skip the latter as well.