Xeno: Proof of Concept

WOW, it's been a long time since we've last updated this blog.  It's really easy to get carried away with the messy chaos of development and real-life, especially when juggling separate jobs, families, and day-to-day responsibilities.  But nevertheless, and never fear, we've been working hard on Xeno all that time.

Probably the biggest change we've decided upon for Xeno has also been the most recent.  As a new Indie studio with no previous industry experience, it's a "5 steps forward, 3 steps back" endeavor.  In the beginning we ran with our imaginations and tried to envision a grandiose game that, while not MMO-size, or even RPG-sized, incorporated a detailed and meticulous vision of space exploration, xenoarcheology, scientific first principles (including basic Chemistry, physics and biology), and 2-player co-operation.  We planned for multiple planets, i.e. levels, and a detailed and not-shallow skill-based level-up system.  But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself.  Should we have a little brush-up on what Xeno "is"?

What Xeno is all about is the exploration of the astrophysical imagination experienced with a friend.  We wanted to specifically capture the little nugget of experience that encapsulates co-operation in historical video game scenarios.  Halo, Diablo, Hexen, Borderlands, Baldur's Gate (console versions), Army of Two, Gears of War, Minecraft, Everquest.  How one person feels when she successfully overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds alongside a friend, a sibling, a mate, or even a stranger.  It's something I've, personally, always found the most satisfaction in, and something we wanted to work toward with Xeno.  In Xeno, in the fashion of these aforementioned experiences, 2-player co-operation is key to survival on these distant planets, as you're tasked with the responsibility of collecting valuable chemical resources from these worlds and taking them back to the Human Network, which then utilizes them among countless human civilizations across the Milky Way.  It is a first-person experience for each player, and once you touch down on a planet, the gameplay is intense, strategic, and frightening.

The starting area for the Proof of Concept level, dubbed "The Protolevel".  Those relatively close tentacles are animated and move of their own accord.  The mammoth black structure in the background is the "Hive," which is accessed later in the level.

Xeno is "intense" due to the overwhelming amount of hostile biota on the planet you've just touched down upon.  You see, the importance of each level lies in its once-biologically-rich biome which, at one point tens-of-thousands of years ago, housed a "dominant intelligent species."  This species (drastically different for each planet) suffered through an extinction event completely unique to itself and the conditions of its planetary system.  In the deep time since the extinction, the planet's biota has re-stabilized with the environment and experienced evolutionary leaps all its own, resulting in the creatures the players discover upon planetary touchdown.  Our scenario designer has a very keen knack for, and understanding of, chemistry and biology, and has been developing both anatomical and behavioral descriptions of each of the creatures.  And we have a really great programmer on our team who's been very eager to work on the A.I. for our creatures, adding flying, burrowing, and even "pack mentality" mechanics to not only confuse and attempt to overwhelm the players at key points, but also to scare the ever-loving shit out of them.

Two "Dead Rovers" trying to sneak up on me, but I turned the tables on them by triggering the "Override" ability of my shotgun (each Override is different for each firearm) and blasting them away, dazing them for a few seconds in the process.

Xeno is "strategic" due to the ability for the player, individually and collectively, to experience emergent gameplay through the customized use of multiple skill-trees.  Each player begins her character with access to either a Pistol or a deployable Auto-Turret which defends her against hostile biota (this option is still subject to change).  As I explained earlier, the players' collective goal is to retrieve a certain total amount of resources (in the Protolevel's case, it's Xenon gas) in order to "succeed" at the xeno-mission.  With that said, the players can extract resources from a "resource node" by switching to their "XMSuit" (Xeno-Miner Suit) and extracting the resource manually from the node.  This, of course, leaves her vulnerable, and thus reliant on either a nearby defensive Auto-Turret, or on the co-operation of her ally who may or may not be close at hand.  The Auto-Turret, Resource collection speed/capacity, as well as numerous other statistics of the player's personal XMSuit, can be upgraded individually and branched into multiple avenues (would Two mid-range Auto-Turrets be better or worse than One high-end Auto-Turret? You decide!), and there will be other "Bots" at your disposal as well, including a resource-collection bot which can stay behind and slowly accumulate resources for you.

The XMSuit's "Resource" animation being used on a Xenon gas node.  You can see the Resources counter on the bottom-left of the screen.  This animation still allows for the player to move around freely, but it is separate from a "firearm" selection, thus leaving the player vulnerable.

Xeno is "frightening" due to the foreboding and alien atmosphere, and the silent immersion that we are bringing to the table.  Sound is extremely important to us, and we have two separate sound technicians working with us, each of whom have nearly two decades of experience with aural technique.  One is working specifically on our musical score, the other is working solely on sound effects.  Something important to keep in mind is that music will not be present throughout all gameplay, but will only be triggered during specifically intense (i.e. "lots of creatures") encounters, and will consist of "layering", which allows us to subtly control the experience by adding more musical layers with more creatures on the screen.  For the sound effects, we've taken a lot of inspiration from games like Mass Effect and Dead Space, especially Dead Space, which utilizes a lot of "industrial" noises and sounds and tweaks them for both metallic and alien effects.  We wanted to make the game frightening, or rather tense, in order to help facilitate the group dynamic of co-operation.  In a dark room, another human being can be more calming then all the flashlights in the world, and we want to work this to our advantage.  The players absolutely can play however they would like, including by splitting up, but we want them to remember that there is strength and strategy in numbers.

Two Resource nodes next to one another, for two players back-to-back, or one player and one "Gathering Bot" to work at simultaneously.  But be prepared for roving creatures... or packs of creatures.

As I started to say earlier, we have recently had a huge change in our development, and I think this is important for any other potential Indie studios who are currently at or will eventually cross this threshold.  When we began development on Xeno several months ago in February, we thought it best to explore the entire game idea all at once, to stamp-and-ship all of our game's mechanics into a Game Design Document and immediately extrapolate the game to three massive planets/levels.  This, as it turns out, was the wrong approach for us.  A significant amount of time and energy needs to go into R&D for this idea, and a lot of inspiration for some of our developers was lost in the quagmire of "scope", that ever-present imp.  About two months ago our scenario designer sketched out a rather brilliant level design for what he called the "Protolevel", and it was based on his countless years of experience playing and studying 90's RPG's like Chrono Trigger and Zelda.  Turns out, an awful lot of psychological detail goes into level design at its best, and for Xeno it should be no different.  With this said, a few days ago we decided to completely strip our GDD of all unnecessary scope details and tighten the project to the Protolevel itself, focusing all of our efforts on crafting and polishing the Protolevel into its own game.  Doing this allows us to test all of our ideas on a perfectly-tuned "game board" with rooms, alleys, avenues, structures, and expanses tailored specifically for each and every experience that we want to conduct in the game entire.  We are able to add or subtract mechanics on a whim within the Protolevel without having to debate over every mechanic under the context of the entire game.  We simply have an idea, pitch it to one another to see if it fits the intended "experience" of Xeno, and plop it down into the Protolevel to see if it has the intended effect.  This has been our most important development change to-date, the whittling of our GDD to something tangible and malleable and, best of all, creative. 

Some ambient assets. "Alien Pods", both of the "full" and... "open" variety.

The Protolevel Horizon, where the sun is... well... not "bright," exactly.  But you get the picture.

So that's it for this update on our progress.  We're quite literally in the middle of a "Xeno revolution" in the virtual studio and it's really very exciting and inspirational.  Just keep in mind that there is, indeed, a vision for Xeno and we're working on making it a very strong reality.

Thank you very much for reading and keep in touch with us on Twitter @VerusGames or shoot us an e-mail at ContactVerus@gmail.com for periodic e-mail updates!  And feel free to comment below!

~Anthony
Chief Creative Officer
Verus Games