As part of the ​​​QuakeCon 2020 Game Jam event, Nocturnal Studios was formed following its winning entry Quarantine Arena, a twin-stick wave based shooter. The fast-paced shooter involved an addictive formula of swapping between battling enemies and purchasing upgrades, engaging the player in the strategies of the intense combat and resource management both. However, the 20 hour project only touched the surface of where our studio could take the concept.

Quarantine Arena:

Not long after the team would begin to grow and tackle a new and grander project, taking the addictive gameplay to new heights. Project GLADIATOR is Nocturnal Studios' unannounced game currently in development with the goal of refining that gameplay loop into something more.

Working as a Team

With a coordinated team of 7 including project management, production, 2D art, audio, quality assurance, and marketing, I occupy the role of designer and programmer. Although our work comes slower given our team members keep day jobs, the project has acted as a fantastic way for everyone to build professional game development experience. The project is fully documented and organized through agile project management via Atlassian's Jira and Confluence, as team members are assigned tasks and work within 2-week sprints. With the end and beginning of each sprint, we meet to dicuss and coordinate our progress, ensuring that all work is reviewed by our leads.

As a designer, it is a priority to present my systems in organized and readable manners to keep development moving smoothly. Below are a few diagrams I have composed over the course of development to demonstrate more complicated systems such as dynamic music, upgrade trees, and levels.

Creative Direction

In the hopes of achieving a centralized vision, I have worked as acting creative director for our project, steering the game's assets to create a cohesive world and mood. Doing such successfully would be impossible without the incredibly talented staff at our studio, following creative direction with absolute precision to capture the sounds and visuals of this world. Coordinating our efforts is critical to meeting our goals efficiently, as system designs are shared with asset creators prior to being conceptualized. Prototypes are programmed into the game before-hand to verify frame counts and other data necessary to produce the assets, ensuring that as a director I provide the team with all the information they may need.

Innovative Design

Over the course of Project GLADIATOR's development, maintaining a realistic scope for our team has been a challenge we must constantly address. Our team has worked to find a balance between a concise concept that we can tackle with our available resources, meanwhile making an effort to innovate through creative design decisions. By no means is GLADIATOR the first twin-stick shooter comprised of progressing through an upgrade tree and taking on waves of enemies. However, Project GLADIATOR attempts to approach these systems in new ways that allow it to stand out from other games in the same genre.

Within a relatively simple gameplay loop, enemy behavior is a cornerstone to our game's experience. Enemies in our game use a combination of algorithms to achieve a dynamic and responsive enemy that keeps the player engaged and immersed in its combat. Taking inspiration from steering behaviors often used in enemy AI, an enemy in GLADIATOR has several factors that impact its willingness to move in a given direction. These factors may include wall avoidance, separation from other enemies, attacking the player at different angles, and of course chasing the player. These behavior influences are factored into a dot product, resulting in the angle the enemy will move towards.
In the gif below, several lines are drawn outwards from the enemy with a length corresponding to its desire to move in that direction.

This system allows the code to procedurally and dynamically influence the desirability of each direction. Enemies will avoid grenades and other hazards, dodge predictable projectiles, keep their distance if their attack is on cooldown, and some may even flee from combat when they are low health. On top of this system includes a pathfinding algorithm, allowing the enemies to find paths towards the player around walls, ledges, trenches, and other obstacles.

While the enemies sit at the center of our systems, it was a clear priority to innovate on the player character who more literally rests in the center of the screen for nearly all of the gameplay.
dynamic player animations. In a twin-stick shooter game, a particular importance is necessary to visually see not only the direction the player is moving, but individually see the direction the player is aiming. Not only is our player character's animations separated into 8 different directions, but the player's upper-body, cape, and lower-body are all separated into separate sprites to procedurally show a separation of movement and current facing direction.

In all 8-directions, this dynamic system includes separate animations for walking, running, jumping, descending from ledges, parrying, and a plethora of others for the use of upgrades. Additionally, the player's held weapon is drawn in their hand, with separate animations to provide a distinction of whether the player is holding a weapon or not. This additional work breathes life into the character the player controls, allowing them to become further immersed into the experience.

Another innovative system of ours is noticeable in the gif above, demonstrating our game's full simulation of a 3D environment in an otherwise 2D topdown game. Beneath all of GLADIATOR's levels is a tile based heightmap read by the player and other entities' collision code. All objects in GLADIATOR function on a Z-axis, colliding vertically to travel up and down stairs, fall down ledges and cliffs, and collide with walls on different levels.

Other collision objects interact with this system as well, allowing levels to include bridges over trenches that introduce a layer of physical depth to the game and its combat. Levels may include moving objects as well, such as the elevator demonstrated in the gif below.

In combination, these systems build into an dynamic environment that provides the player with an addictive and engaging experience unlike any other twin-stick shooter they have played. Our current development is focused on wrapping these systems in beautiful art and audio that in cohesion may leave a mark on both the indie game industry and the players who enjoy our efforts.