Nineteen Stone Ninjas

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Subnet Interview with TSAG

Mon 12 May 2014 11:33

I spent a bit of time this weekend doing a Subnet interview with The Socially Awkward Gamers. you can view the original here, but I thought I would post it here for easy reference, too!


Chris Sebok, the Project Lead, Programmer, Game Designer, Level Designer, and Story Writer, agreed to answer some questions for us. We also discuss their project Subnet, a stealth, hacking and parkour game. For more information on Nineteen Stone Ninjas, and their project Subnet, visit their website http://www.nineteenstoneninjas.com/

1) How did you come to the decision to form Nineteen Stone Ninjas, and start development of your first game, Subnet?

In June 2013 I approached a very good friend of mine (@Lewster32) with a very basic idea for a hacking game. Lew has been developing his own game (Archaos – a remake of Chaos: Battle of the Wizards –www.rotates.org) for a while, and at the time he was the only person I knew who was in to game dev. We talked for a few weeks and met up a few times, forming lots and lots of ideas about the game, and from that a high level design for Subnet was born. It really did start as a hobby that’s now evolved into a massive project with lots of people helping out.

With me having literally zero experience of developing computer games, and knowing that I was a bit of a Microsoft whore (professionally I’m a software architect working with .Net / C#), Lew pointed me at Unity3D (for the uninitiated, Unity allows you to write game code in C#). It made total sense to me, as learning a new language to the depth I know C# is a very long process, and not something that appeals too much in my old age ;). So, I spent the next few months learning Unity, and prototyping various elements of Subnet with Lew. That was a very long, but very rewarding process.

Unfortunately - a few months in - Lew couldn’t continue with the project due to other commitments, but by this point, I’d already done a lot of the work for the game alone anyway. We agreed I’d continue on my own, so I got to recruiting – which I’m STILL on with now, nearly one year down the line!

2) Why the name “Nineteen Stone Ninjas”? Why not 18, or even 20!?

Two questions, and two reasons;

   1- When I came up with the name, I was 19 stone in weight. I actually came up with it for another project I was briefly trying to get off the ground with another friend, though we didn’t even get past the initial talks & logo stage.

  2- Alliteration :)

3) Your project Subnet is still in very early development, but what can you tell us about it?

Basically, everything that’s on the website (http://www.nineteenstoneninjas.com/), which I keep up to date. Subnet is a first person parkour, stealth and hacking game, set in a futuristic, dystopian Northern England. Initially, I was intending to make an open world game, and use lots of iconography from northern cities and towns, but the amount of work involved was too much. So, after having a good old heart to heart with my ego and ambitions, and dropping some major features I initially had planned, it’s now a more linear, story based game.

I have written a very detailed background for the world, which spans across ~200 years of the game’s history. It was the first thing I spent time on after Lew and I scribbled down some initial notes, and it’s been invaluable when getting people on board, and briefing concept artists and modellers. The history of the world will be delivered in the game itself, via a disparate narrative stream to the game’s main story.

I am very open about most of the development, and the ideas I have about the game. I stream on Twitch (www.twitch.tv/bidthedog) whenever I can, and spend an inordinate amount of time responding to emails, speaking to people on Twitter, and replying to emails.

4) What inspired Subnet?

A number of things inspired me to create the game that Subnet has become. Most indie developers - and even professional game designers – will probably tell you that it’s an organic process, and that the game’s design changes numerous times during the course of the concept and prototyping stages. These changes sometimes even slip into the implementation stage, though those have to be managed a little more carefully. In addition it obviously doesn’t help if – like me - you come into it with next to no knowledge of basic game development concepts or the tools you’re using to create your game. I spent a long time doing tutorials, speaking to friends and reading blogs before I even understood basic vector maths, and I am by no means an expert on it now, even if a few things have sunk in.

Parkour

I have no idea where the idea for parkour came from specifically. I could probably look at some old versions of the documents, or run through my Skype history, but it doesn’t really matter – the ideas were coming thick and fast at the beginning, and many of them have fell by the wayside (I may use some of them for a sequel to Subnet, or even in another game). Generally, the process was that I’d come up with some kind of story element, and we both came up with a mechanic that would add to the gameplay. There were no restrictions back then, just imagination!

Many people have obviously drawn comparisons between Subnet and Mirror’s Edge. Whilst I am a fan of the game, I can’t say it influenced me too much when I was programming the parkour in Subnet – mainly because I spent so long learning game programming concepts while I was writing the parkour code, that it feels more like I’ve hacked it together than planned how to do it in the first place! I must have been through 3 or 4 iterations of wall-run code alone, and spent a long time tweaking it to feel right (it still isn’t 100% right!).

I was actually feeling uninspired a few weeks ago, so decided to crack out my Mirror’s Edge 360 copy again to compare it to Subnet. I can tell you now that Subnet’s parkour feels and controls absolutely nothing like Mirror’s Edge.

The only real influence I can cite when it comes to how the game controls is Quake 2. That may sound a bit strange, but let me explain. Both Lew and I were big Q2 players back in the day, and the Q2 engine features a number of “bugs” that allowed players to do special jumps to reach certain places more quickly than they would via the designed route. We were both big fans of these physics exploitations (as were most of the “serious” Q2 community), and we wanted to give the player the same kind of learning curve that we went through; we spent hours and hours learning how to circle jump, bunny hop, strafe jump, rocket / grenade jump, and double jump, because we wanted to get good at it. I’m hoping that Subnet’s parkour offers a similar level of satisfaction, with a little less practice :)

Hacking

Initially I wanted to make a hacking game that made you feel like you were actually hacking in to something. I remember playing Deus Ex back in the year 2000, and being blown away by the fact you could manually type into password boxes and keypads in order to access computers etc. It was such a simple concept, but in the same breath really immersive. I wanted that, but more complicated. I wanted to know how far I could push the hacking before gamers would be put off by the complexity or technical detail. In practice however, it’s not quite that simple. 

I spent a while writing some prototype code that lets the different devices in the game communicate with each other in a variety of different ways, but didn’t actually put much effort into the UI side of things. This then evolved into a command-line based system, with lots of parameters, switches and configuration based stuff; basically a game that was ideal for hackers, Linux users and neckbeards ;) However, as it dawned on me how much work was involved in the game in general, I realised that the hacking would need to be more accessible in order for it to appeal to a wider audience. The command-line stuff is still there, but it’s now hidden by what will be a nice looking UI system (which I’m very happy with so far). I’m still considering having the command-line stuff accessible in some way, but it depends how much time I have.

I haven’t played a game that comes close to how I’m doing the hacking in Subnet, though that may change in a month’s time when Watch Dogs is out :) Though I’ll be getting it, I’m kinda secretly hoping that the hacking is really simple / crap, so I don’t get accused of copying it!

Stealth

The stealth is most definitely influenced by the likes of Deus Ex and Metal Gear Solid. I’m a massive fan of both – they epitomise everything I love about gaming and games. Allegorical story writing, dynamic gameplay, and - most importantly – second-to-non freestyle level design. Although I’ve not yet programmed the AI, I’ve put a fair amount of effort into player detection. The beauty of the hacking system I have created is that everything can be hacked, and everything can be linked to everything else. This will offer the player lots of different ways to approach each problem, more, if you add the parkour into the equation.

5) What has your experience been like developing Subnet so far? And how does it compare to your previous programming experiences?

It is entirely different from my day-job. I generally work in office environments and my projects usually consist of way too many meetings, too much bureaucracy, and a ridiculous amount of office politics. I like to keep things as low-stress as I can, and prefer to get my head down and work.

Game development is arguably the most creative thing I’ve ever done, too (though I have also been in a band and ran a recording studio!), which means it’s also the most rewarding thing I’ve done. The only reason I’ve waited so long to get in to it (on top of my irrational fear of learning a new language) is that friends and colleagues have put me off it; I’ve heard some pretty horrible rumours regarding staff layoffs and discrimination in the gaming industry – though experience has taught me that its prevalent everywhere; it’s just that the games industry is more in the public eye than the industries I work in professionally.

The programming itself is much more difficult in my opinion. I mean, programming is a constant learning experience anyway, but I’ve always struggled with the more advanced mathematics. I was never interested in maths at school or college, and I’ve always learned by doing, rather than being taught. It’s challenging, and sometimes frustrating, but always rewarding; even if it takes me 2 weeks to make a door open correctly, I am stoked that the door actually opens due to some text I’ve written into some editor, and compiled it into a binary. It never gets old!

The development of Subnet has very much been about learning, challenging myself, and teaching others. I always enjoy mentoring junior programmers, and I take as active a role as I can on Twitter and various forums. The number one thing about game dev – to me at least – is the community. A lot of devs support each other, and I’ve made a decent handful of friends from my various interactions.

Speaking of the community, one thing I’m not keen on (that has become more obvious to me in the past few months), is the amount of bitching and whinging that goes on in the gaming industry – indie or professional. There’s a new topic on Twitter every day, and it just gets laborious. There’s also a fair amount of ego, especially across a small selection of the indies that have either been doing it a long time, or have seen any amount of success. Obviously that doesn’t apply to everyone, but to me, it’s all about the games and helping each other out. I have no doubt that I’ll get into trouble with my less-than-pc sense of humour at some point – which is something I’m unapologetic about, regardless of the context – but lots of people make assumptions when you make jokes about certain things, immediately taking a “higher ground”, trying to perpetuate some kind of scandal. It’s all point scoring, and it’s something I learned to ignore a long time ago.

6) You do most of the development of Subnet yourself, how much work do you typically do for Subnet a week?

It all depends on what I have on in real life™. I’m self-employed, so I am in and out of work all the time. When I’m out of work, I will work on Subnet from 7am till 11pm most days, wife-permitting! When I have lots of work on, I work on Subnet from about 4 / 5pm – 11pm. If I’m not on my desktop, I’m downstairs with the wife, working on my laptop, or drawing a level out on paper, or writing a document, or replying to emails, or briefing the artists, or… you get the idea J I have no real need to work as much as I do (there’s no pressure), but I get much more satisfaction out of it than, say, watching X-Factor :)

The team behind Subnet consists of me, plus a number of freelance artists (who are absolutely fantastic, and I couldn’t do it without. I don’t have an artistic bone in my body). I would eventually like to be able to offer people jobs, and form a real studio, but for now, it’s a “best efforts” endeavour for everyone involved.

7) When are you hoping to have Subnet released?

The only question that’s important :) We are hoping to have a single-level demo released as soon as possible. I’m afraid right now I can’t give you a date, as things may change tomorrow (if one of the artists left, it would set us back a lot, and I have some family concerns at the moment) – it could be in a year’s time, it could be in 5 years’ time. There’s a lot of work to do, and many, many things to consider before we release the demo, let alone the finished product. What I have in mind for the game is ambitious, and is a challenge for everyone involved – even after the cuts I’ve made to the game’s features.

I will be looking at funding in the future, but only when we have a better grasp on a release date.

8) You often stream on Twitch whilst you're programming and regularly upload dev logs to YouTube, what kind of response have you received from those interested in Subnet, and how has this affected its development?

Most of the people that watch my Twitch stream are programmers themselves who just want some company / motivation when they’re working on their own things. I tend to find that any gamers that pop in may ask a few questions, get a bit excited, then leave. It’s totally understandable – I’m not in “marketing” mode at the moment, and we’ve not written any press releases. I will be pushing it big time when we have something people can play; you’ll be hearing a lot more from me then!

I’ve also had a few people offer their services to the project after watching me on the stream, which is absolutely fantastic. A lot of people like to know that you’re actually working, and seeing you doing it live - and answering questions as they come in – helps to give them confidence that you’re not all wind and piss.

9) You describe the game as a Stealth, Hacking and Parkour game; but are you making combat a viable option also, or are you going to make players rely solely on Stealth, Parkour and Hacking to get out of trouble?

Ah yes, the old projectile weapons argument. There is weapon support built into Subnet, and I initially intended to include gunplay, but decided to omit them as I was writing some of the design docs. I’m actually exploring guns in the narrative – but I can’t talk about that too much :)

As a player, you will be encouraged to stealth most of the time – and use the various devices in the game to trick and trap enemies. If all else fails, you have your parkour moves available to escape and / or hide from enemies.

I am considering giving the player non-lethal knockout options for attacking enemies, but if I do, it will be discouraged in some way.

10) So far from the concept art (which can be found at www.nineteenstoneninjas.com), we can see that there will be levels based in corporate buildings, but another picture also depicts a futuristic cityscape with the remnants of a typical looking British street in the foreground, what type of world are you aiming to set Subnet in?

Subnet is set in England ~200 years in the future. My cynicism towards English culture gives me an infinite amount of resource to work with when writing story and background, and my existing computer-based technical knowledge has let me explore a number of possible futures for the real world. I suppose I’m trying to make Subnet a bit of a non-preachy social commentary. I have a very detailed background and history written, though the story in Subnet focusses on just a small bit of that history.

I’ve created a bleak and overpopulated world that’s split into two halves; the run-down suburbs, and the pristine, technologically advanced city. The suburbs are where most people live, but have been all but abandoned by the government – buildings are left to rot, and PMC troops police the streets. The crime we know today has been replaced with cybercrime – information is power, and tangible assets are few and far between.

The city consists of many large corporations, towering skyscrapers and bleeding edge technology. This is where most people work. The (blue) office concept art you see forms the basis for the demo level we’re working on, but is just one arm of one of the companies featured in the game’s story. There is a complex commercial and political structure in the game, though I’ll be making an effort to reveal this to the player in a piecemeal way.

A lot of effort has gone into branding and design for each company, and the look and feel of the world. For that, I am very lucky to have the skills and expertise of our two concept artists – Alex and Samira. I find it amazing that they can put my vast amounts of text into concept art that simply blows me away – now it’s up to the rest of us to deliver the actual in-game art!


Interview copied with permission from TSAG

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