Design is a broad discipline in game development. Moving away from the more obvious things like mission or UI design, we asked our Designer Borivoj Hlava to Report In™ and tell us about some of the finer things in game!
We're often asked to let some of our people talk about what it's like to develop a game at BI. 'Report In!' gives you a more personal perspective on our team, a more detailed look at the way we go about our work, and fresh information about our ongoing projects.
As a designer on Arma 3, Borivoj is responsible for the particles, ambient life and the Field Manual. These might not be the first things that come to mind when you think about game design, but have a defining role in the user’s experience. Welcome to Arma 3's Grand Design!
[thumb class="pull-left" clear-xs]borivoj_hlava.jpg[/thumb] Tell the people a little about yourself. What's your role? How long have you been with Bohemia Interactive? Which projects have you contributed on and what is your favorite BI game or mission?
Hi there, my name is Borivoj Hlava, or (Dark)Druid as I’m called on the Internet. I’m working as a Game Designer at Bohemia Interactive: it seems almost like yesterday since I became a part of the team, but it‘s been 2 and a half years already.
Anyway, my favorite BI game is Arma 3 of course. And mission? I don’t play SP missions very often, and there are so many good MP missions which makes it really hard to pick. However, I guess I’d go with ‘Invade & Annex’ from the community-made missions, and ‘Escape from Stratis’ from the official missions.
And can you give us some random facts about yourself?
I've got a degree in Astrophysics. I love sailing and have a license for sea yachts. I was a carpenter in the past.
The Art in Particles
To start off, what exactly are particles?
[thumb class="pull-left" clear-xs]report_design_5.jpg[/thumb] Simply put, particles are almost all of the effects that you find in the game. For example, the dust when you drive a vehicle, smoke and fire when you destroy something, falling leaves when you‘re shooting through a treetop, or the bubbles when you’re diving. All of these are particles that you’ll see in-game.
So what does it mean to design particles?
The design process for particles is quite complex. First, I start searching for references of the desired effect and I use these to prepare a first draft. This draft should include information about the effect and its implementation. For example, what part-effects should be in the final effect, which textures do we already have and which will still need to be prepared, do we need programming support, etcetera.
Once this draft is finished, I start to co-operate with some of the other people in our team. One of our artists usually prepares the textures (hi Janek), there‘s a programmer who works on the engine support (hi George). And last but not least, there’s someone who gives feedback on the draft and the effect itself (hi Ivan and Luca).
[thumb class="pull-left" clear-xs]report_design_7.jpg[/thumb] After this, I begin to organize the co-operation of all these people and consult with them on potential changes. Next, I start to work on the configuration and optimization of that effect in configs. The last part of the creative process consists of another round of feedback. I receive suggestions from people internally, but I'm also using the feedback we receive via our public Feedback Tracker. If you see effects in the game that you don't like, please report it and maybe it will be changed.
Particles seem to be a hot topic in the promotion of next-gen engines and platforms. Has performance been a bottleneck in the past?
I’d say the most significant challenge in particle design is being aware of the performance limitations and realizing that you can't simulate the same amount of particles as in real life. I mean, there are so many small particles in reality, none of the existing hardware would be able to handle it all. Hence it's all about compromise: you need to create an effect similar to the real one, but it has to be simplified. To give an example, in Arma 3, the average smoke and fire effect on a destroyed vehicle contains about 600-700 particles. Although it’s nowhere near real life, its impact on performance can already be significant.
Can you tell us what particles you’re the most proud of?
[thumb class="pull-left" clear-xs]report_design_8.jpg[/thumb] Difficult question, but I guess so far most people liked the MLRS firing effect, which is not a part of the game yet, but it has been on some of the official screenshots and in last year’s E3 presentation. I'm quite satisfied with this one, but I have to say it was pretty quick and easy to make.
However, perhaps it sounds strange, but I'm the most proud of the dust effect when you‘re driving a car. I really like how this effect has evolved since Operation Arrowhead.
The Mediterranean islands of Altis and Stratis are living and breathing worlds with their own ecosystems. Can you tell us a little bit more about the virtual (flora and) fauna?
[thumb class="pull-left" clear-xs]report_design_1.jpg[/thumb] You will find a lot of different animals in the game. We have bees and butterflies, rabbits and dogs, even sharks. These animals really help to make the game more believable. Islands are no longer just static backgrounds for your battles, but feature a complete ecosystem that evolves continuously.
The larger animals also have their own AI, which are, of course, much more simplified in comparison to the AI of human units. This has to do with performance. However, these animals are still able to ‘see’ you, or other animals, and react to these inputs. So keep in mind, you’re being watched! :)
With the addition of diving, Arma 3 is the first in the series to go truly vertical. What did this mean for you?
For me it meant creating new animals in a new environment. This includes animals that were not in any Arma game before and required some changes in mechanics. For example, at the beginning fish couldn’t breathe underwater and they died in a few minutes. I would even say animals are more important in our underwater environment than on land. Many of the animals on the island you won't see because of the trees and grass. It's different when you’re diving, then you can see fish all the time.
Could you pick your favorite animal and explain its design process?
[thumb class="pull-left" clear-xs]report_design_2.jpg[/thumb] That's easy: the Loggerhead sea turtle. Similar to particles, the design process starts with an analysis and a draft. You need to collect data for the model, the textures, and the correct behavior (some animals like deep water, some do not). Most of the work part is for the artist, who needs to prepare a model and textures. The next big step is animations, which are absolutely different in comparison to humans. Lastly, there’s the config guy who makes it all work in-game. My contribution to the work here is more limited. I mostly select which animals will be part of the game, prepare the data for artists, and co-ordinate all of the people involved. Ultimately, I'm also doing the final tweaking of the animal's presence in the game and its behavior.
Fish swimming on land, snakes being civilian; are these evolutions part of your Grand Design?
[thumb class="pull-left" clear-xs]report_design_3.jpg[/thumb] Haha yeah, I guess you could consider this as ‘evolution in action’. Who knows where the evolution will be in a few milion years; maybe it was some kind of prediction? But for now, these were obviously game bugs. Anyway, it was great to see so many people have fun with it. These are perfect examples of things that can happen in games that are still in early development.
A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Armaverse
You’re also working on the Field Manual in Arma 3. What is it and how should I use it?
The Field Manual is something like a library. It contains a lot of information about the game. It can help people who are new in the game to understand the basic mechanics, but I also expect that many Arma veterans will find it interesting and useful. Besides a basic explanation of certain features, you can also find information on each Arma 3 vehicle and weapon. Plus there are tips on how to be more effective and efficient. Some of these can really help you to survive longer :)
So what’s your role exactly in the Field Manual’s development?
[thumb class="pull-left" clear-xs]report_design_4.jpg[/thumb] I’m doing all of the scripting, which means that most Field Manual mechanics were created by me. This is almost done, but there’s some work left in the implementation of new features - requested by the Playable Content Designers or Gekon. Gekon is The One who provides all the data in the Field Manual.
The Arma series is known for a pretty steep learning curve. Does the manual/context hint aim address this?
Yes, exactly. We wanted to make Arma 3 more accessible to people. One part of this is also the context-sensitive hint system. This can display hints whenever the player needs to know something important related to certain mission situations. Our Mission Designer can take any topic in the Field Manual and present it to the player. It’s subtle yet effective.
That said, the Field Manual does aim be more than just a guiding tool for new players. It’s really a starting point for players who want to go deeper into the game. And, similarly to any real library, there will be new topics added in the future, plus players can even create new topics to support their missions and mods.
Looking ahead, what will you be working on towards the release of Arma 3?
I'm currently working on the implementation of a soon-to-be-released content package for the Arma 3 Beta. I'm really looking forward to your response and feedback. I think it's going to be an amazing part of the game as it gives you great new possibilities and tactical opportunities. Afterwards, my focus returns to the particles. It will consist of tweaking and adding some new effects for new vehicles/objects in the game, etcetera. After that, there will be a lot of smaller tasks, related to the credits, documentation and bug fixing.
And after a long day of making games, what do you like to do to relax and unwind?
The best way to relax after a hard day’s of work is to walk from work to home. It's about 4 kilometers; I just put on my headphones, tune to the right music, and walk. Another great thing to do is in-line skating, or clear my mind with a good movie.
What would be the key points in a Field Manual for aspiring game designers?
I think it is important for game designers to observe the world around them. When you are playing a game, you get some kind of experience. Sometimes it’s great and you have a lot of fun, sometimes it‘s just crap – pure and simple. However, it‘s important to realize what made it so good, or bad, or funny. This doesn't just apply to games. Also try to think about fun things in the real world and how you could use it in games.
I believe having a critical attitude is the second important thing. When you design something, you do it with a certain purpose in mind, but players might end up using it completely differently. Sometimes you can create an amazing feature, but players find a way to break the entire gaming experience. That’s why I would always recommend designers try and break their own game, and avoid these things if you can. Players are tricky beings :)
As a creator of digital life, you decide to give virtual birth to a new ruler in the animal kingdom: the Borivojhlavasaurus Rex. As is to be expected, this particle-breathing monster turns against his maker and devours all of the world’s video games. Risking life and limb, which game would you rescue from its context-sensitive teeth?
Am I allowed to say something different than Arma? :D Just kidding. I love Arma, but the two video game series that have probably influenced me the most are The Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Auto. Don't make me choose between these two, I'm taking both of them as I slay this Borivojian beast.