Training in Spy DNA

by Alex Maier, your virtual training guide

In Spy DNA, player characters improve their skills by using them out in the field. However, trying to learn to disarm an explosive trap with a skill of zero may not give a squad member much of a chance to learn anything. So to help with that, the Spy DNA base has virtual reality training stations that allow player characters to hone their skills without risking their life and limb, or their freedom for that matter.

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All party members as well as the Commander will be able to use VR training to learn new skills or get better at the ones they already possess. The rate of improvement will be comparable to improving your skills in the field, with the same hyperbolic learning curve, meaning that it’ll be fairly easy to go from skill level zero to five or ten, but going from 40 to 41 will require multiple times that much practice.

While at the base, you will be able to assign your squad members to training, which they will complete in the time they spend at the base. Their training will be halted while they are out on a mission, but will resume upon their return.

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The team status screen will show which characters have been assigned to complete a particular skill training.

In case of the Commander needing to learn or improve a skill that is critical for game progression, you can have your character use the training stations to launch a VR training scenario, such as lock picking, alarms and traps disarming, target practice, or combat simulation. Imagine your trap disarming specialist having a particularly Bad Day™, and now someone else will have to learn to do their job.

Some of the simpler training scenarios, such as lock picking or basic gun training, will primarily serve as a player tutorial, or to help you overcome a difficulty spike, but others, more complex ones that mimic the gameplay loop, will be enjoyable in their own right, and we see players using them more than once to try out new tactics without risking their health.

Some scenarios such as the combat sim, will allow the Commander to take some of the squad members with them.

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After the training session is over, the Commander (and the squad mates who were in it as well) will get to keep all the experience gained, with none of the injuries! Now ain’t that a sweet deal?

The demo release will include some training scenarios for you to try out, but more will be included in the full version, to cover all the skills available on the character sheet.

Gameplay and difficulty settings

by Jason Sams, lead developer

This month I’d like to show how players will be able to customize their gameplay experience when starting a new game. We previously showed the character customization screens for new games, and now we can show the first draft of the gameplay and difficulty screens.

First I want to talk about how we handle PC deaths on a mission. A death of the commander will always be a game-over event, where you will have to reload from a save (unless in Ironman mode, in which case the saves will be destroyed when Commander dies).

For the remaining members of the party, we’ll be implementing three options. The first (already done) is permanent PC death. This means that if a player character dies on a mission, they are lost for the remainder of the game. Now this may be considered very harsh by some players, so we will have two less severe options.

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The first is cloning. If a character dies on a mission, they are lost for the remainder of the mission, but once you return to base, their clone will be thawed and they may continue on, sans any experience from that last mission.

The third option replaces death with being critically wounded. The PC can be rendered unconscious on a mission, but will recover once you return to base.

Next thing I want to talk about is the ability to adjust the randomness of skill and attribute checks. This will impact things such as lock picking, disarming traps, charisma checks, etc. We will give the player the ability to adjust the “fuzziness” of these checks. At one extreme, full deterministic, if your skill is greater than the check difficulty you always succeed, if it’s less you always fail. At the other extreme, skill checks are highly randomized, and luck and skill will have roughly equal weight.

The remaining gameplay options are about the type of missions you will be given, and the amount of time you’ll have to complete them. For non-storyline missions we have a pool of mission types available at any point. The sliders for mission intensity and map size will bias the selection from that pool, so the side-quest mission you see will be weighted towards the mission types you prefer.

Now for difficulty, we have talked about Spy DNA being a combat simulation. We want to maintain that feeling on both the difficult and easy modes. We do this by not altering the basic combat system, or adjusting the enemy AI. Instead we can adjust the strength of the player and the enemies.

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For player characters, we allow some change in toughness. We do this by altering the strength of the genetic enhancements the character receives.

We also provide an adjustment for the starting skills and skill learning rate. Effectively this acts as an XP multiplier allowing the players to progress more or less quickly. The effect of both of these will be minor.

The last thing that affects the PCs is a “bad luck” adjustment. We give the player the ability to curtail random catastrophic events in combat. We do this because with a true combat sim, a bad luck event, such as getting shot in the head, is usually lethal. This will have three settings, “no one-shot kills,” each PC gets one exception per mission, and realistic.

The final knob we have for adjusting the difficulty is similar to the player options, but applied to the NPCs. You will have the option to adjust how good of equipment the NPCs get, both armor and weapons-wise, and how skilled they are.

We feel these difficulty settings will work better with our mission design, instead of adding more enemies or trying to vary the intelligence of the enemy AI.

Next month, luck pending, we will have another gameplay loop video. We want to re-play the same mission we showed before with all the progress we’ve made on map generation, AI, and attack types.

Spotting and senses

by Jason Sams, Lead Developer

Let’s talk about spotting and senses in Spy DNA.

In any game where stealth is a factor, you also need to consider detection. We just finished some improvements for a mission. I don’t want to spoil the mission, but I can talk about the improvements to the spotting system.

In Spy DNA we have three senses, visual, sound, and smell. Each of these has their own set of rules. A character has attributes for each, so it’s possible for them to be very good at one, while poor at others. We also have a skill for observation, I’ll go over how they work together in a bit.

Let’s start with vision because you will need a visual detection of a target before you can evaluate or attack it. Vision controls whether we render an NPC, so if no member of your party has visual contact with an NPC, you will not see it in game.

Here is a list of some of the things that factor into visual detection of an NPC.

  • Distance to the target: farther things are harder to spot.

  • Senses: eye attribute of the spotting character.

  • Lighting conditions: bright light will make something easier to spot, darkness makes it harder.

  • Movement of the target: moving objects are easier to spot. We also factor in movement speed.

  • Movement of the spotter: if the spotting character is moving it will make spotting things more difficult. We use a different curve here vs the target speed because movement affects both differently.

  • The clothing of the target being spotted: camouflage makes one harder to spot. Ex wired.com/2014/03/hidden-snipers

  • Genetic enhancements of the spotter will make detection easier. The “Eye Resolution” enhancement will make it easier to spot objects at longer ranges, while the IR enhancement will reduce the effectiveness of darkness, camo, or the stealth skill.

  • Stealth: knowing how to blend in with the environment is a skill

  • Observation skill

You might ask what the difference is between a characters eyesight attribute and their observation skill.

When we calculate the chance to spot, we do two separate calculations. First we calculate the strength of the signal. That is the physical question of can the character actually see target. This is basically an eye-chart test. Then we factor in the difficulty due to the environment such as lighting, movement, stealth skill, and we combine this with the spotters skill. So we have two numbers, can the character see the target, and how hard is it to pick it out of the noise. We combine those into one number representing the percentage chance to detect the character and run the check.

I should also note that spotting is continuous. Failing the first check does not mean you will never spot something. Your character will continue to try to spot a target as long as they remain in their field of view.

We treat sound in a similar way to vision. There are a few important distinctions. Detecting a sound will not tell you where the source of that sound was, only the direction it came from. We also have different enhancements to improve a character’s hearing. Sounds will also tend to be impulses. Meaning the detection isn’t continuous but done each time the target makes a sound (footstep, uses an object, fires a weapon, etc.).

Smell is different than the other two. In general it won’t be used to detect an NPC, but rather environmental hazards. Another difference is, it will need time to propagate. So if a bad guy cuts the gas line, it will need some time before it’s detectable at a distance.

We are proud of the results of our detection systems. While not every single one of the genetic modifications and senses will be fully implemented in the Early Access, you should get a pretty good idea of how detailed and realistic our simulation is.

Run! It's the cops!

Stealth missions usually revolve around you not being noticed or identified as trespasser by the civilian NPCs around you, but what happens if they do?

He’s ready.

He’s ready.

A regular civilian NPC such as a researcher, office worker, or even a building night guard would pose absolutely no challenge to a Spy DNA agent, which would make missions boring. To help up the ante a bit, we’ve added the police.

The “police” NPCs will have a non-zero “combat tactics” skill, and depending on their experience level they’ll have other relevant skills, such as Pistols or Observation, to name a couple. This will make them more formidable opponents than your typical night guard. They will also arrive at the scene expecting trouble and will definitely carry weapons.

“You’re under arrest!”

“You’re under arrest!”

When civilian NPCs see something that we’ve defined as crime (picking a lock, using specific items, being in restricted areas, etc.) or if they see something that would hint at criminal activity (an unconscious body for example), they won’t go after the perpetrators or investigate the crime themselves, they’ll call the cops instead.

When the NPC “calls the cops” we start a countdown until the police units are spawned on the map. How soon they arrive depends on how remote an area is, among other things.

We’re playing super-spies, so when the Police Dispatcher activates the response units, your character will pick that up on their police scanner. The dispatcher will state how far out the response units are at regular intervals, to give you an idea of how urgently you need to get your character out of the area.

On stealth missions, getting arrested by the police will result in mission failure, as will shooting any civilians, so our heroes should ideally clear out before the law enforcement officers show up.

Combat hesitations

by Jason Sams, Lead Developer

In Spy DNA we have talked about how you can queue actions for your characters. When we were discussing the difference in behaviors of well trained troops or agents, vs thugs, vs civilians, one of the things that came up is how quickly a character can evaluate the situation and choose their action.

One of the concepts we have introduced to represent this in-game is the idea of a character being indecisive. To model this we introduced a skill called “Combat Tactics”. It’s a passive skill.

We used to key a character’s combat response off of their highest combat skill, but after thinking this through, we concluded this was not an accurate portrayal of how people respond in a tactical situation.

Let’s say we’ve got someone who’s a very skilled marksman while shooting at the range, but has no actual combat experience. Such a person would do worse in combat than a basic soldier who may have a significantly worse shooting skill, but has been trained specifically for a combat situation.

The new “Combat Tactics” skill will use mental quickness as its primary attribute, and mental memory as its secondary attribute. When an NPC decides to change their course of action in response to something it sees, this skill will be used to generate hesitation before starting the next action. This means some civilians and green troops may freeze for a bit once things go loud.

So how does this impact PCs?

When a PC is carrying out their queued actions this will not affect them at all. However, should you cancel your action queue, we will generate a hesitation for the character to represent this changing of their mind. Some PCs will be able to do this almost for free, either due to extreme mental quickness (Margo), or lots of training (Ivan). On the other end of the spectrum, avoid changing things up on Karsten, who’ll need some time to figure out the next steps. In effect it will be important for some characters to stick to the plan, whatever plan you made.

The “Combat Tactics” skill will improve with use, but the governing attributes will still have a large impact on how fast a character can respond to the change of orders.

Life after Kickstarter

By Alex Maier, writer of words

It’s been just over two years since we’ve concluded our Kickstarter campaign, without hitting our funding target. If I said that we were completely unfazed by this setback, I’d be lying, but despite the disappointment we decided to continue on with the project anyway.

As the new demo and early access are drawing closer, I felt a bit nostalgic, so I began to compare our actual progress to the goals we set out to hit two years ago. And you know what? That made me feel good. Aside from having to push out our release dates, we’ve stayed largely on course.

Also, it helps to remind ourselves just how far we’ve come in those two years. So let me take you along for a trip down memory lane, beginning with the Kickstarter video.

First off, I gotta say, thank you Denis for kicking my butt to create our current logo, it is definitely better than what we had back then.

Spy DNA screenshot August 2016

Spy DNA screenshot August 2016

Spy DNA screenshot, August 2018

Spy DNA screenshot, August 2018

We’ve also improved the UI to make it look more like a sci-fi game. Gone are the sharp rectangles and mostly gray-on-gray elements, but on a deeper level, we’ve also streamlined the way our players interact with the game.

Lab tech Oxalana Guy before and after

Lab tech Oxalana Guy before and after

But one of the changes most noticeable to me are our new character models, unique guns, and the look of the in-game world. Then there are things like large landscapes with literal thousands of trees on them rendered at high FPS rates, and level loading times of 10-15 seconds. In our playthrough video, you can see how quickly a 1 x 1 km map loads.

Now, let’s look at the game we’ve promised to you when we launched that Kickstarter campaign, and how we did on each point.

Super-realistic combat and AI make you feel like a real super-spy on a mission
If you watch our latest mission playthrough demo, you’ll see the realism in action, and in a little bit of time, you’ll be able to try it out yourself when we release the new demo

Realistic weapons behaviour, aiming, and cover
We account for character stats, time spent aiming and recoil when calculating shot accuracy, and we take projectile velocity and total energy plus aerodynamic drag when calculating damage. We use actual line of sight for determining which parts of the target are in cover and which can be seen and shot at.

He's got his heart in the right place, so you can aim for it

He's got his heart in the right place, so you can aim for it

Hit points replaced with anatomical damage
We’ve got per-polygon collisions enabled for characters, so we know where they get hit, and if the bullet has been stopped by cover or armor. We’ve additionally filled our character models with collision primitives that represent different organs and parts of the skeleton, and base the actual physical consequences of getting shot on what parts have been hit.

Dynamic turn duration based on character stats; turns execute at the same time
Yep. Got that one.

Immersive story and deep branched dialog
Okay, you’ll have to basically take me at my word on this one, but that 200-page script that I was showing off in the KS vid is still alive and kicking. It's been expanded quite a bit, and we’ve added Lua scripting support to the dialog, to make the conversations have real effect on the game.

Rich character attributes and skills allow you to create and play a character based on your own play style
While some games try to simplify everything down to just a couple stats that have to stand in for a bunch of marginally-related skill checks, we’ve gone the opposite way, providing the detail and granularity to help the player have a clear understanding of what their characters are good at.

Character creation August 2016

Character creation August 2016

Character creation, August 2018

Character creation, August 2018

High tactical flexibility creates replay value
When we wrote this sentence, what we had in mind were static, hand-made levels where only the NPC placement and their actions would vary on each playthrough. Today, we’ve taken this idea much farther: to generating all the levels procedurally, based on mission scenarios that we create in our Editor tool. In today’s version of Spy DNA, you will have a different map each time you replay a given scenario/mission, and the mission objectives won’t alway be in the same spots, so you have to approach each mission individually.

Gratuitous picture of two Spy DNA agents shooting the same target at the same time

Gratuitous picture of two Spy DNA agents shooting the same target at the same time

As you play, you will encounter two types of scenarios: storyline missions and side quests. The storyline missions will be required for you to complete the story arc, while the side quests are one-off missions that you can take (or leave) between storyline ones. Storyline missions will feature unique dialogs and allow you to develop relationships with the members of your squad, who we’ve made as different from each other while still being useful for the team, as we could.

Side quests will be based on several different scenarios, which, coupled with a unique map generated each time the scenario comes up in your intelligence screen, will provide you with hours of challenging levels to beat.

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The demo will ship with only a handful of scenarios and none of the storyline missions, but you’ll see the first few story-arc levels in the early access release.

In addition, we’ve also built a few things from the stretch goal list: guns that you can customize in-game, and recorded voice-over “barks” for our squad.

So while we’re going to be shipping the game quite a bit later than originally planned, we’ll be shipping the game we promised we would, and in some aspects, it will even be a better game than we ourselves could anticipate back in 2016.

Let me wrap up here before I pat ourselves on the back too much. Please subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media to make sure you know when that demo will be ready for you to download and try out.

New demo update

We hit an important milestone a few days ago: Now we can play missions all the way though, which starts when a mission is generated at the base, continues to mission planning, infiltration and team selection, mission execution, and finally, return to base.

Here’s a video we made of the full mission sequence all the way through successful completion.

At this point, the development here at Shy Snake has shifted gears towards stabilizing and polishing the release. Here is a quick list of the top issues resolved this month:

1: Added grass and ground cover to generated maps
2: Addressed performance issues with having lots of trees on a map
3: Added the mini-map in the HUD (For the body-cam fans, don’t fret, it is still available)
4: Fog of war visualization on the map
5: Viewing characters when obstructed by building walls or roof
6: Loading times optimization

We’ve been optimizing our development for the end goal of shipping the Spy DNA game. So we have often delayed or skipped short-term objectives if they didn’t help to get us to the end goal. As a result we are a bit behind on the playtest, but pretty much on schedule for the demo and early access.

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Here’s a view of our internal bug tracker:

Let me explain what these milestones mean to us.

First playtest:
At this point we feel the game is mechanically complete. The core player experience is in place and should give the player a good representation of what to expect in the final product.

First demo:
Everything in the playtest with more mission and character progression. Save/Load must be robust and the base fully functional.

Early access:
Everything in the demo plus access to the full party. The first chapter of the story line has to be playable and several side quests need to be finished. A lot of the bugs in the 0.4 bucket are not necessary for 0.4, we just haven’t created the 0.5 bucket yet.

During early access we will be adding content and polishing the animation and AI systems along with fixing any issues that come up.

We had a few bloopers getting ready to record the video. In one case, I wanted to make sure when a character went down they dropped their weapon. But I forgot to mark the weapon dropped in one case and this happened.

Then while recording the playthough a few missions failed painfully early.

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So with that I will leave it, and please enjoy the first public video of a full mission playthrough.

Maps in Spy DNA

By Jason Sams, Lead Developer

We have been hard at work making the maps in Spy DNA look and perform better. We had a few objectives for improvements in our maps:

  1. make the maps look better
  2. increase the size of the maps
  3. decrease level load times
  4. provide a mini-map
  5. include area maps for mission planning stage

The first major change we made was to increase the amount of decor on the maps. In spy DNA decor items (trees, rocks, signs, roads, etc) serve both to make the map visually interesting, but they also give the player and NPCs cover.

We have also increased the size of the maps. When we tested the various maps, we noticed that the buildings that were necessary for the mission were occupying too much of the area, causing the player to start near the building and so limiting the choice of approach.

This was happening on the small maps, usually 256 x 256 meter in size and smaller. So we have scrapped the sub 256-meter maps and most missions will now default to a 512 m or 1 km map. Some missions will now default to 2 km. 

Those of you that have played the demo might be wondering about the load times on the large maps. We have overhauled the code that generates the map which has greatly reduced the time it takes to load a map. Now the 1 km maps load about as fast as the old 256 m maps and there is no longer a significant difference on load times on maps smaller than 1 km. Even the 2 km maps are now loading in under 30 seconds.

The new code is split into two sections. There is the map itself, and now the Unreal Engine visualization of the map is separate from that. This allows us to do something neat: We can now show the map of the mission area during mission planning at the base. This has also opened up some new options for infiltration such as scouting options to identify points of interest on the map.

This same map is used for the mini-map during a mission. You see a lot of trees on the mini-map right now as we are stress-testing the system.

Because a map with this many trees would normally make it impossible to see your party, we will hide the leaves when you have the camera looking down. The vegetation will progressively fade away as the camera moves higher, resulting in a view like this.

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This will let you keep tabs on your whole party and any NPCs that they can see. The fog of war will still apply and hide NPCs if no-one in your party has a line of sight.

That’s it for my update this month. I hope you have enjoyed the screen captures from the game. Next month we should have some video with live missions.