At a certain point in the development of We Happy Few, Compulsion Games came to a crossroads feared by game devs all over the world: the decision to change course. At E3 2016, the team used the Xbox stage to showcase the game's core plot and darkly psychedelic world. It was a tone-setter that focused heavily on story – and the audience loved what they saw. However, based on the demo, the audience expected We Happy Few to be a narrative adventure, not the procedurally generated rougelike that Compulsion had in development. The game was not meant to be story-driven; it was meant to be played over and over again, in short bursts. After E3, the team came up with a plan to let players have it both ways.
A tough pill to swallow
The procedural-generation systems that Compulsion had in place were designed to be endlessly replayable. Now, the team moved to reshape We Happy Few into a substantial narrative-based game that most players would take their time to complete in a single playthrough. The task of bringing a procedural system into the confines of a linear story was a dizzying one. A narrative-driven game required more robust interactions with NPCs, and the quest system needed to be modified to allow for a more complex series of events.
The team remained undaunted. Compulsion had a promising procedural generation engine and solid core gameplay. "If you feel you really need to change a system, just do it," said Matt Robinson, Technical Director at Compulsion Games.
"The artists and designers were very creative using the tools they had. The system was trying to adapt all the time." Lionel Barret de Nazaris, Senior Programmer, Compulsion Games
The team got to work retooling their systems with the new narrative structure in mind. The initial results were promising, but sometimes changes would break the system: end points spawned too close to their goals, story moments became confined to one tiny area, NPCs behaved erratically, etc. "You're asking a random system to give you this answer you already expect," said Robinson. Nevertheless, the team soldiered on to craft narrative from chaos.
Put on your happy face
Changing the game mid-development, Senior Programmer Lionel Barret de Nazaris explained, "was about … using the power we got from programming to leverage randomness in a semi-controlled way." Compulsion had already put in the legwork of defining the overall structure of the world and had a massive dose of metadata: deep information about road placement, terrain construction, and region setup. They took advantage of their own planning and were able to cut and paste segments of the game from one section into another with a couple lines of code. When things finally clicked "It was a bit like magic," said de Nazaris.
They could iterate like never before. Having a simplified way to make changes gave them a chance to refine their game and test different options. "Normally in a linear handcrafted game that would be incredibly painful and expensive. When building a game the traditional way, you create the terrain for the world, but it's complex to modify after the fact," explained Robinson. That wasn't so for We Happy Few. "Fairly late in game development we were able to say, 'these events we have happening in chapter two, we would like to see them happening in chapter four...' and that was five minutes of work."
Your own experimental chemistry set
The We Happy Few team learned a lot from their roller coaster development cycle. They tested and re-tested to shape their roguelike experience into a fully story-driven one. Because of the critical role testing plays in development, finding the right tools and services to support your game is key. With Azure PlayFab and its Experiments feature, you can easily A/B test variables of your game while in development and as you grow your live title.
Check out the full Microsoft Game Stack for additional game dev solutions.