We’re back! The February edition of our monthly game blog introduces our inspiring Creative Director, Mark Bullock, as he shares his personal background and how it has shaped his approach to the narrative and quest design for Star Stable. Our great Tech Lead, Ismael Serrano, introduces some of the changes made to the servers to improve your experience in-game. Followed by our amazing Producer, Marie-Cécile Jacq, sharing some more details into what’s cooking for the new player character project. Get cozy and enjoy!
Narrative and Quest Design Update
By Mark Bullock – Creative Director
Hello SSO Players! Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Mark Bullock and I am the Creative Director of the Star Stable Product Line. I am a recent arrival at SSE, just starting in August of last year. I would like to take this opportunity to share some personal background and professional experience, and how those shape my approach to our beloved game, Star Stable Online!
I grew up on a ranch in the beautiful Bitterroot Valley in Montana, where I rode horses on our property and in the surrounding hills, forests, and mountains. I had a lot of chores but my parents also encouraged me to create an exciting make-believe world. My mother taught me art and nurtured a deep love of reading. She sewed costumes for my adventures and my father crafted real swords and battle axes! By my mid-teens I discovered motorcycles and my horse riding days quickly dwindled. (My sister, the real equestrian of the family, still rides nearly every day in the mountains of northern Idaho.) That was also about the same time that I discovered Dungeons & Dragons, Traveler, and a host of other pen and paper tabletop RPGs. My friends and I spent countless hours building worlds and having adventures in them. Little could I know that one day, I’d have an opportunity to be part of an amazing industry creating games.
I fell into the video game industry quite by accident, starting out as an artist then quickly moving into level and game designer roles. Ultimately I found myself specializing in world and narrative design, where I could fuse my art and design experience with my academic background in history, anthropology, and political science. My past experiences at studios such as Bethesda, Surreal, Warner Brothers/Monolith, and Avalanche helped educate, develop and hone my methods for creating open world games with strong narrative themes, player autonomy, and personal expression. I am most excited by games that emulate and foster the experiences I had while playing games with my friends: gathering together for creative storytelling, character cooperation, and just sharing in the unexpected highs and lows of fantastic journeys. This is where I know Star Stable shines.
On the subject of storytelling and in-game narrative, it is clear that players are hungry for consistent and high quality quests focused on the Soul Riders and Dark Riders. To satisfy this, the first initiative I took was to coordinate with the Content Craft Manager to grow the writing and content creation teams. The writing team is evolving into a “writers-room” collaboration to allow for easy sharing of the lore and SSO world, maintenance of character continuity, and credible growth in the storytelling. As we all know, change does occur as characters live their lives – evolving, maturing, and experiencing their world – but without proper context, these changes can be jarring, arbitrary, and even alarming!
Growth within the content teams also allows us to dig deeper into systems and mechanics, and will facilitate the regular release of longer compelling quests. We are developing a highly-detailed roadmap, plotting the key narrative beats, matching them against other teams’ delivery schedules, and adjusting them as necessary to mitigate dependency issues prior to going into production. This is very much a living process, currently planning out 2022 and into 2023, but soon moving into 2024 and beyond. In this fashion, we will be able to create detailed quest briefs and graphic “visualization boards” to evaluate and approve long before actual production. The teams are becoming quite adept at tools to visualize and communicate some very complex dependencies and relationships.
Our new approach provides a variety of strengths and advantages. Teams can move forward with confidence from one quest to the next by having a clear understanding of goals, purposes, dependencies, and relationships of the quest events, characters, and story arcs. However, if a change is required (sudden inspiration strikes, something working more or less effectively than anticipated, etc.), writers and designers can more effectively and accurately make adjustments, while tracking the “ripple effect” forward (and backward), in the overall storylines while maintaining continuity and consistency. Because SSO is over ten years old, with deep lore and a lengthy player history of experience, continuity and consistency is both extremely important and challenging. Even within the short timeframe, I’m excited to see positive results as the teams, a mixture of SSO veterans and new hires, come together and rise to the challenge of creating fun and compelling content we all desire!
I am excited to say that the latest quest, “On the Trail of Anne”, represents the opening stage of greater consistency and delivery of quests and it is just part of many other initiatives occurring across the studio. I don’t want to provide any spoilers, but I can say it is just the beginning of revitalizing the players and Soul Riders’ story. Characters renew their purpose, old foes make appearances with new threats and challenges on the horizon. With each subsequent quest, the teams will only grow stronger in delivering the content we all desire, both as players and developers.
After players have an opportunity to complete “On the Trail of Anne”, you can expect a blog post from the writer who collaborated closely with the design team on the creation of the narrative arc, moment-by-moment events, and character dialogue. I’m sure it will be highly informative and entertaining. Happy Trails!
The Great (Teaser) Server Refactor
By Ismael Serrano – Tech Lead
SSO recently turned 10 years old and as mentioned in the previous blog we want it to run for another 10 and beyond! That means we have to keep our code and architecture to a quality of level that allows us to continue working on it in the future. For that reason, we embarked on a journey to improve our servers and your experience. Here are some teasers of the several things we are working on.
First of all we are reworking the architecture of the server. Changing it from a big monolithic to a more modular system allows us to take advantage of the server instance hardware and, since the code will be more modularized, help us to add, modify and fix game mechanics more easily.
Another improvement is to decentralize the server process, splitting it into smaller independent processes. With this change we will be able to set each piece of the server process in different machines, giving us more power to process data, allowing us to implement new gameplay features in the future without compromising your experience.
We are also in the process of decoupling game mechanics from the server process into microservices with their own database. With this change, we will take out load from the monolithic game database that is currently being used. As with the previous point, less load always means better experience and the ability to add more game play functionality for you.
And last we are creating tools and setting up an infrastructure for using test automation and stress tests instead of only relying on manual processes. With the stress test system, we will be sure that the server is actually improving, and we will have a way to measure the limits of it, so we can be sure your journey in Jorvik is to the quality you deserve.
This is all for this tease: in the coming posts we will start to cover some of the topics in more detail, so if you want to know more about what is going on behind the tech scenes of Star Stable Online stay tuned!
Player Character Update
By Marie-Cécile Jacq – Producer
For this month of February, we wanted to dive a bit more into the technical aspect of the character update. The research phase was a long and intense period where each answer was bringing more questions. We will detail here some of the key moments and challenges.
It was clear very early on, every feature upgrade we could implement would have to be analysed by each team to identify the impact on their workload. We wanted to focus first on diversity and inclusivity, therefore, our first steps focused on skin colour, body shapes and hair.
It may seem easy to add more skin colours, but it’s not that simple to make them look good. In Star Stable our textures are hand-painted, and we’re lighting the whole world the same way (as lights have a huge impact on performance). We had to experiment with painting highlights in a lot of different ways so skin tones didn’t look too shiny during the day, or too dark at night. We’re happy with the progress we made so far, and we know that in the future, we will be able to have even better results (following lighting updates).
It is quite easy to understand how much body shape impacts the game. Each animation (mounting, sitting on a chair,…), each piece of cloth needs to be remade, or adapted. Our great developers massively helped, building what we call “additive animation”, which allows us to mostly use the same animations for every body shape, and then, add a specific “layer” to correct the differences. It’s not only reducing the workload of the animators, but it’s also better for the game’s performance.
We’re still experimenting on clothes, and have had positive results so far. On that topic, the challenge is not only the quantity, but also the fact they have been created over a 10 years time frame, during which technology has evolved a lot. It is then harder, maybe impossible to find a solution applicable on every item, so we will also explore different options if those obstacles arise.
It is really heartwarming to read all your positive comments on last month’s post, you can see in the following picture how our 2D and 3D artists are working hand in hand to offer an amazing new character. We can’t wait to show you more next month!
Hope you enjoyed it! We will be back in March with another post giving you a look behind the hard work that goes into creating and improving the world of Jorvik. Let us know if there are any topics you’d like to learn more about! We’d love to hear what you think!