1066 was our first project with C4 Education, commissioned to coincide with a two-part TV drama produced by the nice folks at Hardy Pictures. Keen to repeat their previous game success, C4 gave us a small chunk of development money to put together a game prototype in late September 2008.
C4 Education's brief was to develop a game that was both entertaining and educationally robust. The subject matter suited this brief perfectly, and working alongside Greg Jenner (the historical consultant) and Hardy's Art Department we collected historic and visual resources to act as reference for our early ideas.
Alongside this research, we also conducted some qualitative research with school children who helped steer us towards a blood-thirsty, strategic incarnation ("I just like to hit penguins": Child, aged 7). This loose direction formed the basis for our concept development and further game research.
The game's design references some of our favourite games (Total War, Desktop Tower Defence, Worms, Another world) but the biggest influences came from the awesomely styled Patapon and 'strategy-made simple' Advanced Wars. Additional to this, Channel 4 lobbied for the inclusion of mini-games to introduce a more casual aspect to the gameplay. This mixed bag of of references became the starting point for the game design process.
The Prototype + User Experience
Retrospectively it seems a simple hybrid, but at the time we were mildly concerned whether these different genres could be successfully combined. A simple paper and dice prototype was constructed to test the turn-based strategic system and balance of units but a technical protoype was needed to properly test the interplay between the side-on battle view, the strategic game-play grid and the mini-games. We took the plunge, and in about a week had a quick and dirty proof of concept. The different game elements seemed to work really nicely together.
After this, we developed a set of user flows and wireframes to document the user experience. At this stage the in-game interface was already quite advanced, having being iterated constantly in the prototype. The wireframes and user flows concentrated, mainly, on the pre-game screens such as unit management and the multi-player processes involved in starting games and challenging friends. These were then tested thoroughly, becoming the blueprint for design work that followed.
The TV drama concentrates on the rural farmers who made up the armies, rather than the Kings who commanded them. Recreating groups of individual soilders was our way of maintaining this human element. The silhouettes became the perfect visual solution for achieving this level of detail as well as the realism required for the game to work alongside the live-action series.
Following the visual research, aided greatly by Hardy Pictures art department, and creation of moodboards (one, two), the look and feel came together very quickly. We focused on the battle field, creating something stark that reflected the lonely brutalness of being in battle. The dark textured earth held the GUI perfectly and contrasted strongly with the blood soaked, evocative sky.
The original 1066 look & feel - see more
With the Channel 4 team happy, a style guide was produced extrapolating this intial style into a more detailed set of elements. This document became the visual toolkit, creating consistency across the game and speeding up workflow massively. Combined with wireframes, the design of the game screens became a relatively simple skinning exercise. This process worked really well (even with the usual last minute minor alterations).
The 1066 design style guide - see more
Final design : 'Hand-to-hand combat' mini-game - see more
Building the army
Rigged in Maya, each army have a defining set of physical attributes, weapons and behaviors. To minimise work, shared animations cycles (walking, fighting, charging, firing, dying etc.) were constructed, applied to each army and then delivered to us as animated vector flash assets. In total 154 character and nine flag animations were delivered. It goes without saying that Sliced Bread totally nailed it.
Model of the Norman Soldier and horse
Telling the story
With cut-scenes being the first thing skipped in most games, we knew we had to instantly engage the player and tell the story quickly and succinctly. In total we created four cut-scenes coming in at just over 3 minutes. You can view the original storyboards here and final cut-scenes here.
We also managed to highjack one of the programme's voice-over sessions to get Sir Ian Holm to record the narration for our cutscenes. A true honour.
A selection of frames from a cut-scene storyboard - see more
A scene from a final cut-scene - see more
The development of the game began with the prototype. This way we could test any ideas that came forward and allowed for the build process to align with the aspirations of the project right from the beginning.
The game was built using the Flash Flex builder, which with the game being so visual worked really well. We designed directly into the Flash file, adding visuals and animations whilst the game developers worked within the Flex structure creating the engine.
The biggest challenge technically was keeping the game running smoothly when displaying so many animated vector assets. Initially we had a lot more troops and movement within the units but we found that the processor hit was just not practical. After some fairly laborious optimisation we found a workable middle ground which we felt happy with.
The single-player AI was also a big challenge, the goal was to produce an AI which felt like another human player, making decisions tactically and responding to it's opponents actions in order to defeat them with minimal casualties to it's own army.
The AI works by constantly evaluating a set of metrics for it's own units and it's opponents. This produces a weighting for each unit based on their health, attack strength, defensive strength and morale. The AI then evaluates possible targets for each of it's units and compares the weightings of those targets to it's own in order to decide whether to attack, defend or retreat.
Each unit also has a predefined behaviour which affects the result of the weightings, so for example a unit with a cowardly behaviour will more often choose to retreat compared to a unit with the aggressive behaviour which will almost always attack.
The final feature of the AI was to balance how many actions it chooses for it's units compared to the human player. This works by measuring the average time taken by the player to select each action and restricting the AI to choose an action at the same time interval. The result is a more balanced game with an even number of unit actions on both sides for each turn.
Sound plays a big part in the final game. We were fortunate enough to have all the assets from the TV drama including the original musical score and the battle SFX from Aquarium (the sound guys who worked on the TV series).
Our final job was creating the historically accurate(ish) taunts, so a group of us headed to the local park for a spot of early morning taunting and blood curdling screaming. Needless to say we got a few funny looks, but even the dodgy French accents almost worked.
Things that never made it
At the end of every project, there is always stuff remaining on the 'nice to have' list.
We had always planned for the environment to be richer with random weather conditions affecting gameplay. For example, heavy rain would slow charging horses and lower a unit's morale quicker. We also wanted the colour of the skyline to change as the battle progressed, getting increasingly red as lives were lost.
As well as standard functionality like leaderboards and weapon upgrades we never got around to doing the simple things like saving your army setups. We also had a seemingly brilliant system for customising your flags but just ran out of time.
We also had multi-player chat built and implemented in 'Challenge a Friend' mode but decided to remove it to simplify the experience.
Key to the success of any project is a shared vision and being given the space to just get on with it. Channel 4 Education know this, having the right mix of strong opinions balanced with total trust in their indies.
1066 currently stands as the most played game Preloaded has produced. It has has also been warmly received in the wider gaming community with reviews in Edge magazine, Kotaku, RockPaperShotgun, JayisGames and WaterCooler (to name a few). Having just picked up the Best Educational Resource at SXSW and Best Game at the BIMA awards it also seems our contempoaries like it too.
With a project of this scale there is obviously loads we haven't covered in this post, but if anyone has any questions feel free to leave a comment below and we'll try and answer it.