This Old House
RedFrame by Basenji Games
Published: April 9. 2013
A peek behind the many doors of Basenji Games’ upcoming adventure title, RedFrame
Even on a purely conceptual level, Basenji Games’ RedFrame goes deep, playing with time and space to achieve some rather new ends. “One of our core gameplay concepts is changing the past to affect the present, and having to infer how and why an environment transforms from one state to another across two distant points in time,” says Michael Stevenson. “This idea has been compelling to us for a very long time, and even as we openly explored alternative puzzles and gameplay designs, instances of this concept kept popping up. The actual implementation has changed quite a bit throughout production, but it has always naturally lead back to this core idea.”
As a team of two, Stevenson and Andrew Coggeshall share programming and design responsibilities (though the former is primarily a programmer, and the latter primarily an artist). Shared interests help guide the game’s overall vision, and the small team’s concepts tend to draw heavily from an interest in science, nature, and philosophy. “We've found that player interaction provides a wonderful means of expressing ideas that are otherwise difficult to convey purely in words, images, and sound,” says Coggeshall.
The RedFrame project was originally intended to be small enough to be completed in a year. As the two continued to develop the project, however, their interest in what could be expressed through gameplay changed. “Originally, the main thrust of the project was to create a compelling environment with somewhat limited interaction,” says Coggeshall. “In some ways that’s still true, but we have a much more cohesive idea of what the game will be, and this took about two years to cultivate.” The duo has been working with the help of a single external musician, Notious (https://www.notiousmusic.com), since the very beginning of the project,
Even in its unfinished state, the game is visually impressive. “There’s a lot that can be done in terms of graphics these days, [but] the industry focus has mostly been on shooters,” says Coggeshall. “As a result, even very nice looking games tend to converge toward a certain look. We wanted the game to be built around its environments in a personal way.” This meant that most places in the game have been modeled specifically for their location without reusing many assets. Since the game’s environments require very few dynamic objects, the developer bakes almost all lighting using a custom workflow inspired by non-realtime architectural visualization techniques. “Hopefully this will result in a very unique and special feel to every place you explore,” says Coggeshall. “Environmental storytelling using FPS tech has already been done nicely in games like Portal 2 and Dear Ester, and we hope it is a trend that will continue.”
“The real challenge for us has been to connect gameplay ideas to the types of environments that we wanted to craft,” Coggeshall continues. “So far our solution has been to clearly specify a theme for each environment, to the point of nitpicking. Each place must have an internally consistent set of rules and mechanics, augmented by the visual environment.” He says that the team has come up with some of its best ideas by examining very closely how each mechanic should work, providing the analogy of chess: “If you were designing Chess, you may have a broad idea of what kinds of things can happen in the game, such as a piece moving along a specific path. However, once you start defining exactly what those paths are, gameplay begins to emerge, and from gameplay comes strategy. Once those specifics are in place, you can clearly see if the abstract nature of your design maps back to the core ideas that were originally interesting to you.”
Because RedFrame has largely been a side project (Coggeshall and Stevenson still have day jobs), the developers have had the opportunity to iterate until they were happy with the results. “Since we've been unencumbered by a firm schedule or dwindling funds, our biggest challenge is motivation,” says Coggeshall. “While it may generally be wise to create something small and then iterate, if you know yourself well enough and know that you have the capacity to remain focused and engaged long-term, you can get wonderful results.” He recalls grinding particular problems for upwards of a month and making no progress, and having to work hard to remain engaged. “You may grind on the problem for a year, then discover a solution that no one else has seen. We've experienced this a few times already during this project, and it has provided the impetus for us to continue pressing forward.”
While the concepts underpinning RedFrame took some time to congeal, there were reference points to look to throughout the process. That said, the team tried whenever possible not to simply take the easy way out. “Having a neat concept and turning that into clear game design is very challenging,” says Stevenson. “RedFrame was inspired by old point-and-click adventure games, and we were initially relying too heavily on classic adventure game conventions. The adventure game genre has largely stagnated, relying on old mechanics that have not evolved significantly for over a decade. We had underestimated how difficult it would be to recreate the core qualities of these older games that we had enjoyed so much while still reaching a modern audience.”
This same ethos applied to the puzzle creation as well. “Another big challenge has been constructing puzzles that are not completely abstract, but are still able to clearly communicate what the player is able to do,” says Stevenson. “At one point we began to worry that our idea was not workable and it took almost a year of thinking about game design before the project was able to get back on track. We were able to leverage Unity to rapidly iterate on prototypes, get them in front of players, and quickly discover which of our ideas worked best.”
The team started using Unity in 2008, largely because it was Mac-friendly and had a low barrier to entry. “At the time, we had very little experience developing games,” says Stevenson. “Unity has become far more advanced since then, and it has grown up alongside us as we've become more proficient game developers. There've been many times during development where we've gotten stuck on an impossibly difficult problem, only to find that the next version of Unity elegantly solves it for us.”
Some of those include the recent addition of a proper linear-space rendering pipeline. “Previously, to achieve nice looking pre-baked lighting we had to compensate by calculating the light in a physically incorrect way,” says Stevenson. “Now our process is much simpler and requires very little manual tuning.”
“One particular feature that is often taken for granted is Unity's fantastic asset import pipeline,” continues Stevenson. “It's rare for an engine to allow such a mishmash of model and image formats to be dropped directly into a project and have them appear in-game without additional work. All modeling, texturing, light baking, and scene layout in RedFrame is being done in Maya and Mental Ray, with additional image manipulation using our own custom tools. Unity's robust asset import has completely removed what could have been a major headache in development.”
Basenji has turned to the Unity Asset Store at various points as well. “The Strumpy Shader editor has been very useful, particularly near the beginning of the project when we needed to rapidly iterate on visual ideas,” says Stevenson. “Writing high quality shaders by hand seems to be quite a black art, [and] Strumpy allowed us to start producing quality work with a very shallow learning curve.” The team also integrated FOV2GO for stereoscopic 3D rendering. “In about 10 minutes, we were able to get RedFrame running in full left/right stereoscopic 3D, correctly displaying on a passive 3D TV. We'll also be targeting the Oculus Rift VR goggles, and our initial tests with FOV2GO and some home-brew VR hardware have been very promising.” While the final game is unlikely to include much art from the Asset Store, the Nature Pack has been featured in many of the game’s prototypes. “We'll often grab things from the Asset Store to quickly prototype an idea, then rebuild the final version with our own code and art,” says Stevenson.
In the spirit of giving back, Stevenson wrote a free light mapping extension tool for Unity, which can be downloaded here.
“We'd always been fairly unimpressed by stereoscopic 3D in games, lamenting that it was a distraction, a fad that would ultimately fade away,” says Basenji Games’ Michael Stevenson. “At least, that was until we had the opportunity to sit down in front of a 50-inch passive 3D TV running RedFrame. We immediately reverted to a child-like state, scrambling forward and sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the glowing panel that perfectly framed a window into the world that we had created.”
Stevenson says that while stereoscopic 3D for action games is still a tough sell, it's perfect for the sort of meditative experience Basenji is crafting. “RedFrame is one of the few games that we feel is truly augmented by 3D technology without having to make any concessions in its design,” he says.
Small Team, Big Results
“During the initial phase of production on RedFrame, we would frequently hit a plateau where we'd think, ‘This is it, this is the best quality we can achieve,’" says Basenji Games’ Andrew Coggeshall. The visual style of the game has had five or six major iterations, and each time the duo felt that it had landed upon the final one. “The key is iteration, pure and simple: with a small team, there isn't a hard upper limit to quality, there’s simply a limit to the time one is willing and able to invest.”