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Making Shadow Complex: Donald Mustard Speaks
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Making Shadow Complex: Donald Mustard Speaks

August 28, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

I find that a lot of times that when I play 2D games that are made now, they fail to learn the design lessons that should be elementary, because I think the people who are working on them are probably not as versed in classic games as they should be. 

DM: No, I agree. We had so much of the work... I mean, we're standing on the shoulders of giants, right? So much of that fundamental design work has been done. I agree, if you're going to attempt to be a game designer, you need to be a student of all the work that's gong on before you -- one, just so you don't have to make the same mistakes.

Why make the same mistakes? Learn not only from what people have done correctly, but more importantly learn what people have tried and failed, and see where you can extrapolate knowledge. Why not? It's just smart.

That's how all the knowledge of the human population works, right? We don't expect our children to just... "Good luck figuring it all out!" We let them go to school, and we let them read. We teach them how to learn from the collective knowledge of the universe. If you're a game designer, become knowledgeable about the collective knowledge and build off of it.

A lot of game designers are so busy. Like you said when we were talking before the interview, you haven't really played Gears of War 2 yet, even though you technically work for Epic, because you were too busy making Shadow Complex

DM: Sure. It's true, I don't have a ton of time to play games. But certainly, when we said we're going to make a game that builds off the open world adventure side-scroller design, we made every single person on the team -- because a lot of guys, they maybe played Metroid or Super Metroid, but they hadn't played Metroid Fusion or they hadn't played Zero Mission or they hadn't played Symphony of the Night -- we made every single person on the team play through each of those games multiple times.

The first month of development on the game was no development. It was just playing those games to get the language of those games just solid in everyone's head. I think that was critical to the knowledge base of the company. That's what I mean. I don't think you have to be running out to the store every time a new game is coming out to digest it, but just like any kind of learning, you've got to focus you're learning where you need it.

You have to identify what your target is and what you need to know.

DM: Exactly.

It seems obvious, but I guess it's tough to actually get...

DM: And of course, there are always different kinds of constraints. Who knows with whatever game, what constraints the people are under, what budgets they're constrained by, or budgets or team size, or... who knows?

Something in a game like Super Metroid -- not to harp on it -- is the identifiability of 2D objects in a game that has that precision. Black-bounded outlines -- they pop. You have the flashlight in Shadow Complex that keeps the world looking good, but it lets you identify the colors of the interactive objects. How did you handle the fact that the camera, in the game, more generally won't let you get too close to objects, and make them as easily visually identifiable?

DM: That was tough. There are lots of tricks, but probably the core techniques that we used were... We decreased the depth of field of the camera just across the board for the game or actually the kind of lens ratio. A lot of first-person shooters use a pretty wide field of view for their camera. We narrowed it so a lot of the perspective is squished a little bit. So, even though you have a lot of depth in the game, it's not as drawn out perspective.

Kind of like when you're popping into the roadie run in Gears.

DM: Yes. How it comes in low -- exactly. And so the whole game, we brought in a little bit so that even though there's a lot of perspective, it still flattens out some of the edges. It's a lot easier to see, especially when you're making one jump to another, you're not getting such a wide perspective, which helps with the jumps.

The other big thing was lighting. We tried very, very hard to light the areas that are the main gameplay areas in the game. And then, yeah, using the flashlight was a huge thing. Because it wasn't tile-based, where it's not like Metroid where you could literally bomb every square of the game to find out what's going on. We had to just like abandon that language.

You're talking about things you have to abandon not just because of the visuals but because that's the kind of thing that I think people who grew up on more contemporary games are not going to want to do -- bomb every square of the game to find missiles hidden in every nook and cranny. This seemed fun to us at the time, but is going to seem like padding, I think, to more contemporary gamers. That's my instinct, anyway.

DM: Yeah. That was exactly our instinct as well. We thought not only are people not going to want to do it, but also it's not going to translate to 3D. And so that's where the idea of the flashlight was born. We think it provided the solution that we were looking for. There are those techniques, and there are a few other things that we did as well.

And a lot of it is just trial and error, like, "Oh, you know what? That ledge isn't reading for some reason, so we need to remodel it or retexture it or relight it." That was probably the main thing. Shadow Complex, every pixel of that game has been combed over and massaged and noodled to hopefully be balanced and fun and readable.

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