What is Metamorphos?
Metamorphos is a third-person action game centered on melee combat inspired by the Dark Souls series. Players take on the role of the temple’s guardian, awakened to cleanse the temple from an evil force corrupting it. Players must fight and dodge their way through a series of corrupted denizens, wildlife, and guardians to confront Nafaset, the Defiler, and restore the blessed oases.
Metamorphos was made in Unity 2019.4 starting in my junior year and continuing until I graduated with a team size varying from 10 - 22 members. In total, 26 people worked on Metamorphos during its development cycle, including 4 designers, 7 programmers, 2 sound designers, and 13 artists.
What Did I Work On?
During my first of three semesters on the project I was the combat/system designer and user researcher. The next semester I also became the producer and narrative designer and held all those roles until Metamorphos shipped to Steam in May 2021.
As combat designer:
- Designed AI systems and behaviors for all four enemy types and both bosses.
- Created, implemented, and balanced all 27 enemy encounters.
- Balanced damage and health of the player, enemy types, bosses, and all their attacks.
- Collaborated with animators on creating attacks with strong identifiers and tuned the timings of all attacks through animation events.
- Led hiring and onboarding process of 8 team members to match the team's expanded creative vision and desired scope.
- Facilitated interdisciplinary collaboration by restructuring team communication methods and team dynamics to adjust for remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Managed Steam publishing process and competition submissions.
- Served as the bridge between the team and DigiPen professors and faculty.
As user researcher:
- Designed telemetry and remote testing systems to adjust for the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Conducted usability tests to find and solve early animation readability issues.
- Analyzed and visualized player data to balance encounters and fix level geometry.
As narrative designer:
- Reworked existing narrative to focus on environmental storytelling
- Collaborated with creative director for total level redesign to include new narrative
- Integrated new narrative into the existing encounter and enemy design.
What Did I Learn?
With Metamorphos being the largest game I've made in terms of team size, duration, and scope, I've come away from it having learned many valuable lessons.
1) Communication and references are key to collaboration. Making games is an interdisciplinary effort where people with wildly different backgrounds and skills come together. Not everyone thinks the same, has the same shared backlog of media to look at, our like the same things. Being able to clearly communicate your ideas and show concrete references really smooths things over. Some examples from this project included dissecting God of War’s attack tracking system to improve our AI, understanding how Dark Souls 3 handles rapid camera movement with the dog enemy, and how the environment should look from referencing real-life locations.
2) Games are about how every element comes together to create the experience. This project was my first deep dive into refining combat design, specifically encounter design, AI systems, animation timings, and game balance. When making a game that’s a clone of or heavily inspired by another game, really understanding why everything came together to make that game great is important. One instance occurred midway through the project, I was struggling to make our game feel more like Dark Souls combat, and I had to step back and reevaluate what made Dark Souls work. Doing so opened my eyes to how the visual enemy designs play a massive role in how Dark Souls works. Simply put, because of how we visually designed our enemies they didn’t have the same reach that Dark Souls did which made them much easier to dodge and maneuver around. The solution to this I found was to look at other games like God of War that empower the player by having their attacks magnetize the player to the enemy and working that into our AI. By having our AI lunge forward and rotate to face the player during their attack animation, it made the game feel a lot better to play and feel more like Dark Souls combat.
3) Everything is a trade-off. No seriously, everything is. With how interdisciplinary and collaborative game development is, every choice we make of what to create impacts everyone else. For example, let’s say we want another enemy type. Well, that affects the concept artist, modeler, rigger, animator, VFX artist, AI programmer, gameplay programmer, tools programmer, encounter designer, combat designer, sound designer, and audio programmer. Now, because adding a new enemy type affects all of these roles, this means that any other task that could use one of these team members can’t. By making a new enemy type we could give up making a combat system that required the gameplay programmer, combat designer, UI designer, and UI artist. This is a cascading effect that everyone on the team needs to respect. The way to deal with this is understanding what gives us the most “bang for our buck” and careful project management and pipeline management. This is where leads and producers really shine, making sure the project runs smoothly and no one has too much or too little on their plate at once.
4) Take a break, grab a drink, and relax. Game development is a marathon not a sprint. It’s important to be able to take breaks, stay fresh, and step away from the project to look at it with fresh eyes. My team and I would take breaks after each milestone, trying to have a game night or get-together (virtually during COVID-19 lockdown) to blow off steam and stop thinking about the game. It’s really, really easy to get lost in our work or put our noses to the grindstone and toil away, but it’s often not helpful. In the short term, crunching for a week might be worth it. Having the team come together for one last big push to finish up core features or a milestone can really help build comradery and make a better game, but it can’t happen constantly. People think better, act better, and create better when they’re well rested, happy, and healthy.
5) Play your own game. This really should be obvious but as a TA at DigiPen I’ve seen this negatively impact so many teams and games. My team and I would frequently play our game, finding bugs, breaks in level geometry, odd edge cases, and problems that only certain members can see. Without everyone playing the game or being there when the game is played, things will slip through the cracks. Because we played our game frequently with multiple members present, we’ve found things like an animation bug that caused the enemy to fake out the player and an AI logic bug that prevented an enemy from ever using a few of its attacks. It’s impossible for everyone on the team to know everything about the game and how everything should function, and that’s where having many people on them play the game or be there when it’s played comes in.
6) Shit happens; make adjustments, and don't be attached to a single thing. Over the course of making Metamorphos, people have left and joined the team, a global pandemic happened, a team member got robbed, and people had deaths in their family amongst a million other smaller things. It’s impossible to plan for these, predict these, or solve these issues. What’s needed is to make adjustments, cut what needs to be cut, and pivot where needed. In the example of one team member being robbed and his workstation being stolen, we cut some of the work we had them bookmarked to do, helped them as best we could, and focused on what work they would be able to do and how we can make that as impactful as possible.
7) You need to enjoy your work. Whether that’s because you love who you work with, the project you’re on, or the day-to-day work you do, you need to find ways to enjoy it. When you truly love what you do, you think about it more, put more care into it, and work better with people. There were so many times where I’d see our creative director or gameplay programmer in our Discord server at some godawful hour and join them to work. I wasn’t forced to do this, or even asked to, but I was always excited to be able to talk about our game with these two people and see what ingenious ideas they were hatching. It’s a small thing, but having that boost in creativity from enjoying your work makes the experience of game development so much better. If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, talk to your team about shifting what you’re working on and finding something that excites you.
8) Team integration needs to be a priority. After my first semester with the team, I became the new producer and was in charge of filling the gaps on our team and growing it to meet the needs of our large ambition and scope. To do this, I increased our team size by 50%, doubling our art team, adding a sound team, and finding a tools programmer to help support the team as we transitioned to remote development. With this massive influx of new members, I knew the first priority was going to be onboarding them. To do this, we did three major things: slashed the amount of assigned work the tech team had in the first few weeks to free them up to help new members, made sure everyone was available and in voice channels during assigned lab time, and made sure the team culture would be welcoming and encourage everyone to ask questions as soon as they came up.
9) Put your game out there, wherever it's allowed. Metamorphos is my first published work on Steam. As the producer at the time, I was entirely in charge of the publication process on our side, working with DigiPen and Steam to get them the materials they needed and go through revisions. In addition, I also handled the contest submission materials for my team, finding competitions we could enter and creating the necessary materials to submit through DigiPen. From doing this, I've gotten a couple of takeaways: read and match the requirements, concept art makes sick promotional images, find your team's narrative, and always shoot your shot. This last piece is what led to us winning the 2021 Intel University Games Showcase and being featured by one of the largest Dark Souls YouTubers.