Orcs & Elves DS Developer Diary #2

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In Orcs & Elves developer diary #2, producer Katherine Kang of Fountainhead Studios touches on the numerous differences and enhancements that have been made in bringing the title from cellphones to the DS.

Dev Diary #2: What’s new for Orcs & Elves on the DS
By Katherine Anna Kang

What’s New? Let me count the ways…

1). New 3D engine with 3D levels and 3D world objects
2). Full 3D sound with environmental, directional, and ambient sounds
3). 3 new levels
4). 4 new spells
5). 5 new usable items
6). 6 new monsters
7). 12 new interactive world objects
8). New player inventory management system
9). New bartering interface
10). New puzzles
11). New elixirs
12). New effects
13). New difficulty levels
14). Newly enhanced Dragon’s Lair
15). Newly enhanced dialogue boxes for game characters
16). Rumble Pack ready

If we had to choose just one difference from the cell phone to the DS as the most significant, it would be the 3D engine. The original cell phone game had a very limited, tile-based 2.5D engine that could only render constrained sets of horizontal and vertical polygons with aligned textures. The DS’s new 3D engine allowed our artists to use arbitrary geometry, texturing, and lighting for the levels using Maya. Though we were very limited due to the polygon limits of the DS graphics core, the changes have been significant. This new engine allowed us to re-create the levels in 3D with 3D world objects allowing an effect that is subtle and unobtrusive.

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The Prison level is a good example of the visual improvements we were able to bring — compare the cell phone version of Orcs & Elves to the DS and you will notice the lighting, the vaulted ceilings, the swinging cages and chains, the cavernous openings in ceilings, and the various 3D artifacts floating and bobbing in the flooded level. The fierce battle with the formidable Sonya now begins with her spinning a web down from high above, descending down to where you are, rather than crawling out of a hole in the wall. Unfortunately, one thing we were not able to convert to 3D were monsters. The choice to continue using 2D sprites for most of the monsters was mainly due to memory issues. Going with 3D models would have resulted in a severe reduction of monster types in any given battle and the creatures would have been forced to be extremely crude. There are several areas in the game where a mass of monsters — a large number of unique monsters — confront the player and are in constant view. Within the limits of the DS specs we had to work with, to be able to achieve this feeling of being mobbed and assaulted by all sorts of creatures, using sprites was a reasonable option.

Gamers who are serious about sound should appreciate the full 3D sound that has been implemented. Compared to the mono sound of the cell phones, the new 3D sounds for the DS is quite a significant upgrade. The new sound system helps give the player a feeling of truly being in an underground citadel. Levels have unique ambient and environmental sounds that enhance the feeling of crawling down a mountain. When you enter a flooded area, you hear the dripping water — when you near an Orc army, you hear the shuffling of feet and the movement of enemy soldiers — as you traverse the down the mountain, you hear wind, crumbling rocks, creaking wood and a variety of other sounds. Whether you’re a sound geek or not, we suggest that you put on your headphones and enjoy the ride.

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Some of the fun in bringing new things to the game is when that fun happens by accident and turns out better than expected. One of the many things we had to change to make the game “work” on the DS was the intimidation effect on the monsters. The way the intimidation effect works on the cell phone goes something like this: If you have an intimidation ring on there will be a high likelihood that monsters will get frightened and run away from you. To visually cue the player that a monster has been intimidated, the only thing that worked on the mobile phone (from high end phones to the low end phones with 300KB of space) were fright lines over the heads of the monsters. This crude application for an intimidation effect just wouldn’t work on the DS so we had to come up with something better. We tried a variety of ideas and for quite a while, we just couldn’t find a solution that worked. All of the neat ideas would have taken up too much media space causing problems both in heap and actual package size. Towards the last month of development we even considered bringing back the crude fright lines over the heads of monsters — even that didn’t work. I’m not certain exactly how this idea came about or even why we hadn’t thought about it earlier but one of our artists had finally found the answer. It was in the eyes! One of our artists created a set of bulging eyeballs that could be used for all of the monsters (from Wraith to Mimic). When we all first saw its application on a few of the monsters, we were afraid that it was too good to be true. It worked great on a couple of monsters, but would it work for ALL monsters? The answer is yes and its application is quite hilarious.

A side story that we didn’t have room to flesh out on the cell phone will finally make it’s way onto the DS. Occasionally, a few people will ask me about that lone Vaettir stuck in prison. He originated from the idea that even vicious enemies have cowardly sycophants who brown-nose to the top. We had grander plans for him in the original version of Orcs & Elves but we simply ran out of space. I thought it would be funny to leave him trapped in jail. Well, he finally makes a break for it on the DS. Though we still have not given that character as much face-time as I had hoped, his brown-nosing, back-stabbing, scheming ways find an apt and just end on the DS. Perhaps if we get to make a Wii version of Orcs & Elves, we’ll get to see more of him and maybe even see how he slithered to a position of power and why his own kind chose to leave him in a jail to rot.

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From sheep that you can kill to make lamb chops to the different ales that vary in potency, we added quite a bit to Orcs & Elves DS to bring more life to the game characters and their world. Though many things have been added, improved, tweaked, massaged, and squeezed into that 16mb DS cartridge, the most important element of the game has stayed the same — the game is fun.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!