A speech about Free-to-Play game design

About a month ago, I gave a speech at Creative Mornings in Portland about the way the Free-to-Play business model affects game design. I compared games to television, looking at the way television business models have drastically affected the composition of those shows.


(I didn’t name this speech; the title given here was picked by Creative Mornings after the speech was given.)

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Recent coverage of The Witness:

Interview with Adam Sessler at last week’s PlayStation event:


Discussion on PlayStation Blogcast (Witness talk starts around 26:25):


(From the way the PS guys talk, it sounds like it is all me making this game, but as always on games of this size, there is a whole team making it happen!)

Interview with Gametrailers, also from the PlayStation event (you may have to sit through a commercial with army dudes to see it):


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Pictures from a Demo Day at Sony

Sony had an event today at their offices in Foster City to give the press some hands-on time with upcoming games running on the PlayStation 4.

The Witness was among the games being shown! We were the only third-party game there. Also shown were a whole lot of Killzone: Shadow Fall, Knack, PS4 versions of Sound Shapes and Flower, and Resogun.

I did some interviews and talked to a number of press people who are very interested in The Witness. I also took some photos.

Brad from Giant Bomb playing The Witness:


The room we were in:


Flower at 1080p and 60Hz, with the new, more-sensitive controller, feels nice to play:


Sound Shapes:





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Shadow Mapping Summary – Part 1

During the last several weeks I’ve been polishing and optimizing the shadowing system and I think that at this point it won’t undergo any more significant changes. In the process I’ve been reading a bit and looking up references and I’m appalled by how inaccessible is all the shadow mapping knowledge. For the most part it is scattered in obscure power point presentations, random some blog posts, SDK examples from Microsoft and hardware vendors (NVIDIA, AMD, Intel), and numerous ShaderX / GPU Gems / GPU Pro books.

I’m not going to try to address that here, but just as I was writting this Matt Pettineo released a good overview of some of the different techniques available that is a good starting point. Instead, I’ll describe some of the problems that I faced when implementing and optimizing our shadow mapping implementation, some of the techniques that I tried and the solutions that worked best for us in the end.

While there are many techniques that I haven’t tried and I’m sure our solution could be improved further, for this game I’m pretty comfortable with our implementation in terms of quality and performance.

Read More »

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The Shipwreck

The shipwreck is an area of the island that has not been shown before, because up until recently it was one of the barest, most undeveloped areas we had. It grew bigger and bigger over the years (like most things on the island), from a little slab mockup Jon had by the shore, into a massive freighter with the usual,  intricate gameplay requirements.


The process for building this ship was interesting. We have architects helping us with building designs, but even the architects were not entirely familiar with the structures of ships. We spent a lot of time looking at reference images, talking about the materials and how the entire structure would decay over time. They gave me a base design for the hull, deck, bridge, and the inner beams of the ship. I modeled that whole, then split it up into five pieces.


The front, middle, and back pieces were kept somewhat intact, the rest was split into scattered rubble to dress the scene. Next, it was time to figure out the gameplay and decide what parts of the ship would be accessible and what parts would be rotten away. Because the ship was so huge and I was modeling it alone, I had to be careful about limiting what would be navigable and what would be seen, since I wanted to keep my workload to a minimum while still having very interesting, believable areas. I spent a long time cutting holes, bending floors and ripping out beams.


Then, I had to figure out how to make a decaying heap of metal with our simple, clean style, as described by Eric in the last post. My first attempts had minimal detail in the geometry, with a lot of noise and contrast in the textures. It was exactly the opposite of what we usually do, but I was trying to develop a process for detailing the entire ship quickly, and it’s a lot faster to use blendmaps to add noise than to tediously cut and shape geometry. It looked terrible, but I was at a loss for how to make it better quickly. Fortunately, Luis and Eric encouraged me to just reduce the contrast in the textures, and let the small details in the modeling stand on their own. It took ten seconds to lighten some textures, and all of a sudden I had something I was finally happy with. At first it felt wrong to leave large surfaces so plain, but the other artists were right. With our beautiful lightmaps and simple style, a little detail and a few modular rubble and rust pieces were all that was needed to make the space feel like it belonged to our game.


This shipwreck is still not quite finished, but it is the last huge project on my plate before moving on to the many smaller projects and tasks we still need to complete to ship the game.

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On the Rocks…

What’s up, internet?  I’m Eric – one of the artists working on The Witness.  I figured what better way to celebrate more than two years on the project than by making my very first post on the development blog!  (plus, Luis and Orsi hassled me!!!)  So here goes:

In the olden days of The Witness art development, our visual “style” for the game hadn’t really coalesced yet.  Or, to be more accurate, we knew what our objectives were (from a purely theoretical, gameplay-based perspective) but we hadn’t really grasped what the ramifications would be in terms of our production process.

For instance, on an early attempt at adding a rough-stone wall, I approached it like most modern game artists would: using the full spectrum of art tools and tricks…  normal mapping, edge-distress, enhanced details, etc..

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But the problem with this approach is that it’s sort of at odds with one of our prime directives from Jonathan:  to build a game world without unnecessary visual clutter.  “Noise” was our enemy.  But that’s kind of an interesting riddle, since most game engines and art techniques are so often all about adding extra levels of noise, grime, texture, detail, (realism!), etc.

So we began an exploration of different techniques we could use to achieve a sort of stylized realism.  We needed to be able to capture the “essence” of our reference imagery while not being quite so literal.  It also had to be free of gratuitous visual noise, plus appealing to look at and explore.  So what follows is an early effort to break down and re-think that art process in a different sort of way.

In this case, my objective was to figure out how to attack a medium-sized cliff face while avoiding an overwhelming amount of noise/detail.  First off, reference.  Starting with some photo reference, I wanted to isolate the primary features, and not worry at all about the small, noisy stuff:


Then, an attempt to stylistically sculpt those simplified shapes:


 And finally, breaking those forms down into modularized, reusable meshes that could be combined to form a cliff:

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One of the biggest lessons we learned from this experiment was that if we give the engine nice clean, simplified geometry (not worry as much about the texturing – just keep it understated and focus more on the overall color and balance), the lighting results we get are gorgeous.  In a way this is extremely freeing, as it lets us concentrate on the overall form of objects, rather than obsess over details like perfect seamless, UV mapping, limited texture resolution, normal mapping issues, etc.  We also learned very quickly that hard edges are not evil….  In the absence of heavy texture detail, the faceting had become a powerful tool to help define the form in a clean, almost graphic style, with minimal noise, but lots of subtlety.

That process of “analyze, deconstruct, simplify” became our new way of approaching complex surfaces.  And so, as we built out more areas of the island, this visual language began to take shape,and you can now see it deployed across most of the rock forms in the game…

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Take note that foliage has a different language [see Orsi’s previous post on trees], as does rolling terrain, and hard architectural surfaces.  But this style contrast is extremely useful from a game design perspective, as it helps inform the player as to what materials the surfaces they are looking at are likely made from, without having to resort to overtly photoreal textures.

Even older areas of the game (that were suddenly “out of style”) were able to be refreshed using this new lens, and brought in-line alongside the cleaner, less-noisy artwork:

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And here’s some additional rock shots from around the island, just because…

Luis’ awesome sculpted sandstone cliffs:


Orsi’s awesome lakeside steppes:


And a bit of mysterious tunnel:


That’s all I’ve got to share for now.  Have a great September!!!


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More Screenshots

It’s been a long time since the last posting! Time flies.

Normally I would post an Island Snapshot, but the viewpoint we have been using for Island Snapshots is a little bit unfortunate lately, since the main thing taking up the view is the mountain, which is an area we haven’t worked on modeling-wise lately. (It is a big area so we are going to do a concentrated push on it in a little bit, when some other things get locked down.)

So, here are some screenshots of other stuff we have been working on lately. Both areas are in progress and will look better than this in the final game!



A lake that’s central to the island…



A swampy area with light buildings and walkways. The vegetation you see here is temporary! But I am happy we are finally starting to work on this area; if you look at it in the trailer, for example, it’s obviously very much more temporary.





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Since a lot of you have been asking for them, I put together a few wallpapers based on those poster ideas from a while ago (most of which were created by Luis, who has a great eye for composition. Hopefully I didn’t butcher them too badly.)








My hope is that at some point we will add a media section where we can put more wallpapers, posters, screenshots and such.  We are all working hard to finish the game, however, so it’s not exactly a high priority.

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Island Snapshot

Once again, we have been mostly working on things you can’t see from this angle. The most-visible changes are probably the peninsula on the left in the foreground, which has undergone extensive work lately:


It’s been revamped by Alex, who is new on the team, helping us with the huge amount of modeling we still need to do to finish the game. Hopefully we’ll get a bio paragraph for him soon on the About page.

The current puzzle count is 590.

The current footstep count is 1756.


P.S.: Last week we showed The Witness at E3. This was the first time we have ever shown the game running on the PlayStation 4. We got some nice write-ups about the game; here are just a few:

Steven Hansen from Destructoid really enjoyed the game!

Tara Long from Revision 3 really enjoyed the game! (She also gave us an award at the show!)

Darren Franich from Entertainment Weekly put us at #1 on the list of most exciting games of E3.

Matt Miller of Game Informer seemed to really like the game, and put together a list of defining features.

Chris Leggett of Gameplanet says The Witness was his personal favorite game of E3. (The folks at Gameplanet who chose the photos to go on the article used some unfortuante, super-old development photos though!)

Tom McShea and Shaun McInnis of Gamespot gave a video summary from the show, seeming to like the game a lot as well!


Posted in Progress Shots | 20 Comments

Here’s That Poster

In May, we wrote about a bunch of ideas for posters for The Witness. We couldn’t say so at the time, but we were prompted to do this by the inclusion of such a poster in a PlayStation 4 promotional video. Of all the possibilities we ran through, here’s the one we liked the most:

Witness Poster png

If you watch carefully and don’t blink, and look past all the balloons that are blocking it, you can see the poster (in different proportions) starting around 0:57 in this commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOdW1OuZ1U0

Hey, it is what it is.

Because we picked this one as the final, we have it in a much higher resolution than the other options. If you like it, feel free to use it as a desktop image, or whatever!



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