Diecast #333: Ross Returns

By Shamus Posted Monday Feb 15, 2021

Filed under: Diecast 40 comments

Once again I’m talking to Ross Zevenhuizen, a friend, collaborator on Good Robot, and one of many developers for Watch Dogs Legion. He was last on the show in Diecast #322 where we talked about Watch Dogs. This time he’s back to talk about this other projects and game development in general.

Hosts: Paul, Shamus. Episode edited by Issac.

Link (YouTube)

Show notes:

00:00 Watch Dogs: Legion was made by a legion


07:23 Risk of Rain 2 Mod

Ross developed Honpo Rebalance, a Risk of Rain 2 mod designed to keep foes dangerous without them turning into massive bullet sponges in the late game.

12:47 Astral Horizon

You can read more about the project the blog.

22:36 Constrained by Art

Ross liked a particular mailbag question from a past show and wanted to revisit it, but I can’t find it in the archives. The general gist of it was how raising production values (better graphics, voice acting, more complex models) will naturally constrain your team and the scope of the project.

39:34 Past projects

45:59 Future projects


From The Archives:

40 thoughts on “Diecast #333: Ross Returns

  1. Joe says:

    The first FPS I remember that tried to do realistic environments was Dark Forces. Star Wars level of realism, but at least they tried. As for how the HL games guided the player, I remember the devs saying that they would put a slightly lighter patch or some ammo or something wherever they wanted the player to go. A gentle guidance, compared with other games that put a great big arrow on the minimap or whatever.

    The best job I’ve had, in terms of commute, was when I moved into an apartment in the same block as my work. One minute’s walk. Sadly the business closed six months later, but it was still a good time. Since I’ve never worked from home, that’ll have to do.

    1. Joe says:

      Also, your discussion about old games convinced me to give an old book I’ve been struggling with another go. See what can be learned from old works.

      1. Naota says:

        That’s great!

        One of my favourite examples of useful ideas from old media is an absolutely ancient DOS game called Crystal Caves. It’s from a time before any UX conventions and even most gameplay norms were firmly established, so it plays by a completely different set of rules than we’re used to.

        Among other things, it’s not uncommon to get irrecoverably stuck in part of the level because of a mistake in your platforming, and rather than being a bug that’s something clearly accepted by the designer as a failure state.

        Powerups are also used like keys: they’re often required to gather the gems needed to clear the level, and have durations that start ticking the moment you pick them up. Since they don’t respawn, each powerup is actually a kind of sadistic trial – wasting it without accomplishing a task it was intended for is effectively suicide, requiring you to either think on your feet or gather information ahead of time.

        This is by no means a conventionally “good” game. It can be frustrating, mystifying, or downright cruel at times… but a lot of thought went into designing these fiendish puzzles, with a consistency that tells me a skilled designer was behind it. He was just playing by completely different rules, in a different time. There are some good ideas you could extract from an ancient jankrelic like Crystal Caves which never passed on its ideas – and perhaps only from it.

    2. Addie says:

      I remember the Valve development style at the time of HL2 being:

      – design the level
      – playtest the absolute shit out of it
      – if people were getting stuck somewhere, then put a little ‘point of interest’ in the direction they’re intended to go, and make the ‘wrong directions’ a bit blander
      – repeat

      They also decided that there’s no point in having alternative routes, since players invariably explore them both, slowing the game down; thus inaugurating the era of the corridor shooter. HL2 is very decent at just giving you a little hint in the right direction, due to the massive amount of testing, and it famously rarely takes away control from you; but I still blame them for all the straight-line cutscene-to-cutscene follow-the-leader shooters that came after it.

      1. Pax says:

        That’s an interesting point about alternate routes, because I absolutely always explore both before continuing on, and have lately started feeling kinda irritated about it. But I also thought this was a purely me behavior as I tend to explore the hell out of a game map and make sure to take in all the carefully constructed sights like the world’s most morbid tourist, and it drives my friends crazy.

        1. Daimbert says:

          I do that as well, but that’s a side effect of playing games where lots of things are placed on the alternate routes that you might want to get or need (items, XP boosts, etc) and so I end up being OBSESSIVE about exploring every area and route I can find to make sure I don’t miss anything.

          The absolute worst game I ever played for getting lost was Suikoden V. I got lost a lot in general, but there’s one forest level where even though I was playing it on a higher resolution — and so clearer — Amiga monitor, I couldn’t even SEE the right route and kept getting stuck until I finally found the way in. That game was NOT clear on its routes.

          1. Lino says:

            I take that a step further! As much as I love non-linear games, I get a little sense of dread whenever I have two branching paths. I want to explore the whole level, but since I’ve never played the game before, I’m obviously not sure which of the two options is the main path. But the problem is, that sometimes the main path holds an important cutscene or setpiece, or whatever, which doesn’t allow you to go back! And all of the scrumptious loot in the alternate path has been lost forever!

            So I always get a bit of anxiety once I’ve made the decision which path to pick. And if I start getting “main path vibes”, I quickly run in the opposite direction, so I can make sure that I haven’t missed anything!*

            *In before the end-of-level summary that tells you how many secret areas the level had, and where I learn that – in fact – yes, I DID miss something. Actually, no – going by that summary, turns out I’ve missed EVERYTHING!!!!!!

            1. Daimbert says:

              Yeah, I’ve hit that a couple of times, although my preferred games tend to not do things that way. But there have been a few occasions where I’ve hit the area that ends everything before I managed to explore all the areas, and so end up missing things, which makes me try to guess which route ISN’T the main one so that I can explore it first.

          2. Syal says:

            Yeah, RPGs in particular are really bad about alternate route stuff, and the early ones are really bad about maze designs in general. Gave up on Dragon Quest 6 when I got to a damage floor dungeon with multiple stairs, and the correct route was “walk on the damage floor far enough to scroll the screen to reveal a secret staircase that’s the only way forward.”

            There’s also a treasure chest in Final Fantasy 6 that I’ve always skipped because the one-time dungeon is exhausting; guides tell me that chest contains the ultimate weapon.

            1. Daimbert says:

              And one of the worst things about JRPGs in that is that they have random encounters that spring up, so if you want to explore or get lost you end up having to fight more and more battles to do it. If the battles are easy, then it’s boring, and if it’s hard, it drains your resources.

      2. Echo Tango says:

        I think you could have alternate routes, but you need to have some system(s) that prevents or disincentivizes backtracking. Something like the ghost from Spelunky would be a decent start, although I don’t know how that would translate to the 3D, non-cartoony games like Half-Life, Stalker, or the Metro games. I imagine for a couple levels, you could get away with a chase-scene, where enemies will cut off alternate routes, and you’re running towards a friendly transport vehicle that’s giving you new destinations to run towards. Maybe the set-up is that your Resistance pals were going to pick you up in a stolen APC, but they got found out and are on the run themselves, so you’re both improvising pick-up locations, while being chase by the Imperial Army. For non-chase levels, you could try things like rotting floorboards that drop you downwards, or collapsing ladders when climbing up a building, but those would get tiring if repeated. Maybe the player could have a couple buddies, that are always taking the side-paths themselves, and you all meet up at intersections and the end of levels. :)

        1. Geebs says:

          I think you just invented Uncharted.

          1. Echo Tango says:

            Hah! That’s what I get for not playing big-budget games! ^^;

        2. Olivier FAURE says:

          For non-chase levels, you could try things like rotting floorboards that drop you downwards, or collapsing ladders when climbing up a building, but those would get tiring if repeated

          Oh man, the collapsing floorboards.

          They got so bad that by the middle of the second game, when playing with my brother, we started making a running joke about “the cursed feet of Nathan Drake”. It never stopped being funny.

        3. Galad_t says:

          Amusingly enough, the ghost was what put me off permanently from Spelunky. Absolutely not a fun mechanic in my opinion, if I want to spend my time backtracking, which is already mildly annoying in itself, don’t punish me additionally for it

    3. John says:

      The first FPS I remember that tried to do realistic environments was Dark Forces. Star Wars level of realism, but at least they tried.

      I don’t think I’ve ever played more than five minutes of Dark Forces, but I was about to say something similar about Outlaws, which is of course another FPS using the same engine by the same developer. Not all of the levels are especially realistic–ugh, that sawmill level–but it was nevertheless the first FPS I ever played where any of the levels felt anything like real places. The game’s second level, a small western town taken over by bandits, is still one of my favorite FPS levels ever. Each building in the town has an obvious and mostly plausible purpose and is decorated appropriately. The town is arranged in a mostly sensible way rather than as an arbitrary gameplay-maze. The game is still a Doom-clone. There are random secret passages even in otherwise sensible levels and there’s an unfortunate amount of searching for color-coded keys. Nevertheless, it was a real breath of fresh air at the time.

      1. Geebs says:

        Back when Bungie were developing Oni, they made a huge deal about how the environments were being made by actual real-world architects. Then, when it came out, the main criticism was that the level design was really boring.

        1. John says:

          I bet. The reason that the small town level in Outlaws works so well is that it’s small. All of the buildings, with the exception of the large, two-story house at the center, have just two to four rooms and there are only about a dozen buildings to begin with. There’s a lot of variety in a very small space. Even just moving between buildings is interesting because you never know how many goons might be lurking around a given corner and of course you have to worry about gunfire from the bandits barricaded in the central house.

          I watched a Game Maker’s Toolkit video on level design over the weekend, which quoted the Hitman developers as saying that levels should be just realistic enough to feel plausible and that once you’ve achieved plausibility other concerns should take priority.

        2. Naota says:

          I for some reason forgot to mention this on the show, but I did a Let’s Play of Oni once upon a time and while I kinda love the game, its level design was truly baffling.

          There are powerups in bizarre unreachable (or nearly unreachable) spaces like the outsides of skyscrapers with no way up, in the ceiling supports, or on objects that look like they’re outside the level bounds. It’s obvious someone took a chainsaw to the levels, though I never got the full story why.

  2. Lino says:

    Great episode! Your talk about getting lost in Thief reminded me of an Assassin’s Creed preview I read years ago. It was before the original came out, and they said that in order to feel more immersive, the game wouldn’t have a map. You would be completely on your own in this strange and foreign land, without any kind of hints. This was actually one of the things I was looking forward to! But I guess the industry really did go in a different direction. And I’m sure the AC games have been all the more successful for it.

    By the way, I always wondered – whatever happened to that Cold War game Pyrodactyl game was working on? It seemed really interesting, and it’s a real bummer that it got cancelled. I get that you couldn’t secure funding, but wasn’t there a way to decrease the scope so that you could still make it happen? Because it looked extremely promising.

    1. Echo Tango says:

      I’m always for more games that don’t shove minimaps and objective-markers in your face. Firewatch and The Long Dark were both really great, since they had maps, but you had to stop to use them, and you didn’t have any kind of magic GPS markers inside of your eyeballs. It really let (encouraged?) you pause and enjoy your surroundings, seeing all the rabbits, turtles, or whatever[1] was around you. :)

      [1] Just not the wolves or bears. Fuck those guys.

      1. Lino says:

        I really like how FireWatch did it. It kind of reminded me of a 3rd person action-adventure game about Indiana Jones that was loosely based on some scenes from the movies (or maybe it was entirely its own thing? I don’t really remember). There was one level in a sunken temple where you were looking for pieces of a treasure. You had a map that you could consult, but it was just that – a regular map with some marked locations on it. You had to use the various landmarks in the environment to determine where you were and where you needed to go. It made you feel like an actual explorer, rather than an all-knowing techno wizard.

        I think this is a big reason why most modern open-world games feel so bland for me – being able to pinpoint my location at any time can kill the mystique of even the most fantastical world.

        1. John says:

          The Sid Meier’s Pirates! remake has something like that in the orienteering mini-game where you search for buried treasure or various lost cities. It can be a lot of fun but it can also be incredibly frustrating, especially on the harder difficulties or with an incomplete map.

        2. Naota says:

          I loved this about Interstate ’76 in particular. You had two buttons you could press at any time while driving: P, for Poetry (naturally) and M, for Map. Both of them would pull up a scrap of paper, a restaurant menu, the back of a guidebook – some random object on which your character had scrawled either sloppy Nevada highway directions… or some sweet lines of poetry relevant to the level in question.

          While that’s hilarious on it’s own, finding the places on the map purely by following actual highway road signs was functionally identical to real life, simple and intuitive to grasp for anyone who’s ever been in a car, and instantly boosted my immersion in the game every time I did it.

      2. Kyle Haight says:

        My wife’s approach to The Long Dark seems to involve a lot of her creating her own custom maps using a graphical sketch pad. I think I see her doing that more often than playing the actual game.

        1. Fizban says:

          There was a point in Dead Cells where I was getting fed up with my lack of progress and started mapping the routes so I could run them specifically. The mapping was actually pretty fun: it’s a form of organization, bringing order to chaos, and there are tons of games which present that type of gameplay as a primary feature. But I imagine most people, like me, will have a very narrow sweet spot for the amount of mapping they’re willing to do.

      3. Moridin says:

        I immediately thought of Morrowind. No map markers, just written/spoken directions that tell you where to go(and which typically assume that you act like a normal person and use roads when possible). On one hand it would be nice to have map markers(or at least, some way to tell when you’ve gone way off the track). On the other hand, like a lot of other features Morrowind has or lacks, it really adds to the feeling of immersion: It’s as if you really are an outlander who’s stumbling around with only cursory knowledge of the local geography and landmarks. Getting lost is a real danger.

    2. Naota says:

      Late To The Party was a pretty interesting project – it was the point where our workflow and Unrest’s engine started to fall into place, and we were able to set up content faster and to higher standards than ever. The trouble was of course, securing funding after the Kickstarter boom that allowed Unrest to happen.

      I think only Arvind would know the specifics of the situation post-Kickstarter, but we had been planning to do development full time with our small team and the lack of stable funding put a real damper on those ambitions. Arvind and I were able to freeload while we developed and take extremely low returns to make Unrest possible (I think I made less than $1000 from Unrest all told), but Ruts was working part-time through development and our poor artist Mikk depended entirely on game revenue to pay his rent.

      This is just my personal opinion but in retrospect I think we could have made the game for less and still survived – but only if we were willing to undervalue our work again, and it may not have been possible to feasibly re-Kickstart the project after it failed the first time without making some major changes.

      To end on a high note though: both Arvind and I got industry jobs not so long afterwards, Ruts is still as Ruts as ever, and Mikk stayed afloat after we parted ways and is still making cool space games.

    3. Naota says:

      It means a lot that you remember LTTP – I always wondered what people out there thought of it. This won’t fill the void, but allow me to wax nostalgic about some ideas that never saw the light of day. Maybe it’ll be interesting in its own right:

      Pyrodactyl went through a lot of awesome pitches for games that never quite made the cut. Each time we made a game, we all got together and pitched stories and concepts before deciding on what to do next. LTTP was neck and neck for a while with a concept I drew up for a heist drama set in an alternate history 1930’s Hungary, and before we worked out the deal to move over to Good Robot there were plans for a cyberpunk megacorp ladder-climbing game.

      If that’s not weird enough – we also had ideas like a space colony oddity inspector, a magical girl midnight radio show, an MMO chatroom as a narrative device, and a raid on the legendary archmage’s tower by white collar corporate employees.

      This isn’t even touching on the prototype projects that were actually started and didn’t quite get off the ground: we put quite a bit of thought into designing a game where you played as an evil wizard, who as punishment for once usurping the throne was trapped in a lamp and forced to act as a wish-granting djinn for consecutive generations of rulers. You had a series of magical powers at your disposal, but could only use them in pursuit of the wish du jour – however, the choice was always yours to either honour the spirit of the wishes, or the letter; to earnestly seek redemption or to try and free yourself by any means necessary; to seek good outcomes for the country or listen only to its ruler.

      Even more in depth was The Red Stone, which was my turn at bat for a project: a fantasy-themed predecessor to Astral Horizon where you played an alchemist returned from the horrors of the crusades, to find a mystery left behind by your late master in a city caught between the newly-empowered inquisition and a legacy of alchemical wonders. It was an intersection of Darkest Dungeon, X-COM, and our earlier dialogue-driven RPG’s. Sadly it became difficult to continue for legal reasons once we got our industry jobs, but we had a substantial amount of work done: a full plot structure, villains, levels, demo gameplay, concept art, and enemy designs. I may be able to show some in the future if there’s interest.

      1. Lino says:

        All those concepts sound amazing! But as cool as they sound, I think that both they and the complications to LTTP show just how risky being a full-time indy can be. You could hit gold and become the next Notch, you could barely break even by severely undervaluing your work, or you could crash and burn :/

        I think you and Arvind have gone the right route by getting a stable job, and working on your passion projects on the side (although I’m not sure if Arvind’s got time for the latter – last I remember he’s got a family now? Maybe even a kid?).

        1. Naota says:

          We had a little Pyrodactyl reunion at Arvind’s wedding a few years ago. It was quite a thing! He’s still interested in games but I think his job keeps him busy. I’m able to work on things like Astral Horizon mainly because like you said, the stability of a regular job lets me go at my own pace and not worry about paying rent – though it would be incredible (and more than a bit scary) to have a small studio that finds some niche it can serve without always being one underselling game away from bankruptcy.

          Most of what I do for AH is focused around the idea of reducing the risks as much as possible, so I can pitch basically a completed game – everything working minus art, campaign missions, and polish – to a backer or crowdfund, and promise it just needs the money for the parts left out. That’s a lot safer and more convincing than just throwing out an idea and a price, and hoping it wins people over. Even if the theoretical Kickstarter fails, or nobody ever gives me a cent, it’s always possible I could compromise on the art and save up on my own (whether that’s a worthy investment is hard to say – it’s the strongest work I’ve done that I love the most, but I don’t want to bank my entire life on it).

  3. King Marth says:

    As for being constrained by your art, I was thinking about this a little while back – once your art becomes your livelihood, then while you have your entire working day available to spend on your art, there’s also a host of other demands on what you produce. Specifically, if your art isn’t driving sufficient revenue, then that’s your livelihood in trouble. Things you enjoy may have to be sidelined if you want to continue eating, which brings you right back to why you wanted to do art all the time in the first place. There’s a quote from The Good Place – “There’s something so human about taking something great and ruining it a little so you can have more of it.”

    Hobby art is arguably much freer, as while you can’t dedicate yourself fully while the day job is funding your hobby and life around it, there’s no external metric that you are required to reach with your art. It’s frustrating that the videos or indie games you care about aren’t reaching an audience that you feel will enjoy them, but if you enjoy producing them then that can be enough, they started with no expectations. Meanwhile, if you’re a professional then low view count means you *need* to pivot because you need to drive enough revenue to pay yourself and possibly your production crew. The more responsibilities you hold, the less you can stick to artistic principles when they conflict with staying in business.

    Of course, you can do something popular (Pixar’s Cars) to fund the art you’re passionate about, and then you’re right back to working a day job. Nothing wrong with having work that lets you practice the same skill set.

    1. Lino says:

      While I agree, I do think there can be a middle ground. Once you’ve found an audience that cares about you, rather than your content, I think you can treat it more like a hobby. E.g. I’m sure that most of the people reading this blog come here, because of Shamus. If tomorrow he decides to write exclusively about knitting, I’d still read all his articles. I’m sure the people who support him on Patreon feel the same way.

      Now, that does have its drawbacks. The main one being that growth isn’t easy. If we go back to your Pixar example, if Shamus ever wants to scale, he’ll definitely need to make another Cars (I say “another”, because the reason he got popular in the first place was because he produced a couple of very popular pieces of content at a time when that type of content was really popular).

      Still, I think there is a middle ground one could strive for. It probably takes time, and it definitely takes sacrifices, but I think it’s definitely do-able.

      1. Philadelphus says:

        *picks up knitting needles expectantly*

    2. Naota says:

      This is absolutely true, but it’s even stranger to me to realize that often your art itself (detail, specifically) constrains your art. You can make a shallow plain, or a precipitous trench, but the limit on your creativity is always going to be how much unique detail you’re capable of putting out to meet the standards you’ve set for yourself.

      Once these standards are set high enough, it becomes difficult to justify any waste; any dalliance, nuance, or spark of interest, because the cost of expressing any idea is so high that only the most obvious survives. You may gain an incredible, artistic facade to every building in your town that wasn’t possible a graphics generation ago, but you’ll lose the ability to lay out the streets sensibly, to build interiors and rooftops and cellars, and to experiment easily with the flow of your level. Moreover, unless you’re a diehard hobbyist, it won’t be your level: you’ll soon need modelers, texture artists, lighters, and tech people to make it tick.

      I actually meant to connect this point to the very first topic during the podcast, but I forgot while we were talking! This is one major driving reason why teams are so large: the only way to keep up with the increase in detail if you aren’t willing to wait longer and longer for games to be finished is to hire more people to make smaller pieces of them at the same speed. Hence, the Legion legion.

  4. RFS-81 says:

    I like Thief, but oh man, the Thieves Guild level! It wasn’t even in the original game; they scooped it up from the cutting room floor and put it into the director’s cut. WHY?

    1. Naota says:

      The lowest circle of video game hell isn’t fire or ice – it’s the Thieves Guild’s endless sewers.

  5. Douglas Sundseth says:

    I left a related comment on the YouTube video (For the Algorithm!), but anyway:

    Talking about getting lost in video games brought me back to the days of Wizardry and Ultima III, where you had dark mazes (they would extinguish your light sources if you had any), without compasses, and with spinners and teleporters. And of course the only mapping system was a pencil (never use a pen) and graph paper.

    Step forward, turn left, step forward, (bump, that’s a wall, draw a line), turn right, turn right, step forward (bump, that’s a wall too, draw another line), turn left, step forward (bump, must be the end of a corridor). Wait, there’s a void in the map. Time to search for a secret door.

    Wait, the map is overlapping itself. OK, was it a spinner or a teleporter. And where was it? Ah, there we go, time to redraw that section into the right place in the right orientation.

    Those were the days. (Days of pain and frustration, but they were definitely days. Oh, so many days.)

    1. Nimrandir says:

      Yeah, I remember Eye of the Beholder driving me to map areas like that. Good times?

      1. Douglas Sundseth says:

        Given the limits of the previous choices (Temple of Apshai, Hack, …), they were freaking amazing times. But not so much worth revisiting.

        The advent of automatic mapping was a huge advance in UI for adventure games.

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