Creating Innovative Game Experiences: The Making of RedWaterOne
Designer Bart Massee shares his creative development process behind RedWaterOne, an interplanetary drone warfare game to rescue humans from insurgent AI.
"RedWaterOne is entertainment, and it is also a learning curve for understanding what we can do better to make intelligent decisions for our future."
Bart Massee - I am Bart Massee, Creator of RedWaterOne, and Design Innovator for HP. In my career, I've worked as an innovator in both large corporations and startups, from product design (my original field) all the way to digital experiences. My current passions are virtual reality, gaming, and the digital tools needed to build and explore in these areas.
You could say I've pivoted from being a product designer toward my big passion - gaming and virtual worlds. I love design innovation and I spend a lot of time bending materials to form beautiful product experiences, but I am also intrigued by virtual worlds, an arena without the limits of traditional manufacturing and a creative space where there are absolutely no boundaries. In gaming, you as a creator are able to build worlds as big as the imagination can grasp. RedWaterOne combines my passion for robotics and Artificial Intelligence in a new mobile gaming experience.
One of my closest friends and great designer Albert va Dijk playing RedWaterOne. He is a pacifist and not a gamer, but in talking about the game we had a great discussion on drones, AI, and the need for a global set of rules.
When I was 17 years old, I was drafted into the Dutch Army. I chose a career as a fighter pilot and tested with the Dutch Airforce toward my dream of flying the Fighting Falcon. I did not make the final reaction tests. From my Army days in Germany, I vividly recall the brand new A10 Warthogs flying low in pairs over the German forests as I rolled on the ground with my four ton DAF off-roader, on my way to fuel up the 104th Cavalry Leopard Tanks. Seeing the fighters hanging low over our battlefield and hearing the twin GE Turbo-Fan engines whining as they covered our leopard tanks against the Red Storm Rising left a lasting impression on my otherwise pacifist soul.
Seeing the trends now in AI and autonomous drone warfare, I decided to take these experiences and build RedWaterOne. The game explores a world of interplanetary warfare with drones, ballistics, Artificial Intelligence, and victory over an uncontrollable AI revolt.
Running through artistic optimizations on iPhone. I was quite pleased to see how far we could push Unity in the amount of effects and lightpoints in every scene. Sebi managed to squeeze out 60 frames per second with clever pooling tricks.
Congratulations on your release of RedWaterOne! The game is intense, with beautiful artwork. Can you share a brief overview of the game - what the story is, what the goal is, what the gameplay is like and what players will experience?
On the distant mining planet Wolf 1061C, the AI mining robots threaten to infect and "darken" life on all planets in the vicinity, converting humanity to enslavement in a mining hive.
As a pilot for RedWater, you have been recruited to help stop the darkening of the planet. You've been cleared to pilot a remote drone and join the waves of AirPatrol Missions. These missions aim to stop human conversions, help retrain the insurgent AI, hunt insurgent leaders and take out targets of opportunity.
Can you balance collateral with a successful campaign?
A brief introduction to RedWaterOne and what you'll experience in the game.
What inspired you to create the game, and what has the development journey been like for you? How do you take an idea from concept art to an interactive experience?
RedWaterOne began with a decade long journey of learning and building. I took a game development course, got in touch with GameMaker Studio and loved it. Parallel to my career as a designer, I built out my skillset to be able to make demonstrators. With the visual coding system of GM, I could do all the coding myself to explore exactly the systems I wanted to build, unique from standard game behaviors.
I launched two apps in the App Store through this process, Asibot and Scraptrials (both now extinct, as Apple's new guidelines make them obsolete), both centered on self-generative, chance-based behaviors. This gave me the confidence to go further. I made a demonstrator of the Pinpoint Precision engine in GM. The goal was not to make a game about war, but rather a game that makes the player experience the insanely difficult decisions on collateral during modern warfare.
This was an early demonstrator of the self-generative lifelike behaviors I am passionate about, that you see in the game. Just tinkering with these settings to see the villagers come alive is so much fun.
When I eventually decided to take the Pinpoint Precision engine further, I began an intense study of Unity, C# and Blender. I found the basic C# foundation allowed me to describe the game objects and dynamics briefing in detail, but it would be an extensive timeline for me to become C# capable, so I decided to partner with someone. I quickly found Sebi Velciu on Unity Connect. He was willing to write my basic scripts, essentially translating the core behaviors from GM Studio into C# scripts. I immediately realized he was a great partner due to his clean code and structure. Two years in, we had built out an insane game engine on top of Unity, which allows us to expand our game further using a solid, systematic code. We are looking to advance RedWaterOne in stages based on our success, perhaps in some form in VR.
As for the game development, I started with a simple sketch, then built the first prototype in GM - a kind of hacked-together prototype, but it ran well. I let it rest for a number of years, and when I came back to it, I started sketching improvements in Concepts. I love the tool and have been using it for sketching and visual ideation ever since it came out on iPad. I came to the insight this game idea could work well for iPad and iPhone.
Character sketches. Concepts makes it so simple to drop reference images in and craft vehicles, explore palettes and sketch styles. Working in the app just feels so comfortable and smooth. Below in the image are some Blender renderings of the pedestrians in a village.
The focused concept art development started here in Concepts. I started sketching out world ideas on the drones and worlds. I used inspiration from Pinterest boards I keep on artists that I admire, such as Moebius, one of my all time favorites. I also happened to be reading Dune for the first time - my wife gave it to me for my birthday. That was a fantastic experience. The world of Dune was somewhat in line with the concept I had come up with - I imagined the real planet Wolf 1061c as a mining planet with a billion people and a couple billion AI robots.
Level design in Concepts. In this phase, laying out screens and entire missions worked so well, we decided to use the art straight from the app as the mission cards in the game.
Concepts and the community have been a strong constant for the game design. It also influenced the look of the maps and briefing docs in the game, as I use art straight from Concepts in the game menus. Keeping color palettes and moodboards and evolving them through level design also shaped the look of the game.
Working in Concepts on the iPad on a scene for one of the mission endings. The Core of the City - I imported a quick Blender model as a screengrab, and am working on top of the light / atmosphere vibes to come up with details. The flexibility of Concepts meant I used it for the full two years of game development - rapid prototyping at its finest.
Being versatile in CAD packages and having worked in Cinema 4D for a number of years in earlier experimentations, I picked up Blender relatively quickly (through the donut building tutorials of Andrew Price) and worked on the 3D art evenings and weekends. I created a soundscape with Garageband with a combination of real and artificial intelligent voiceovers. As mentioned above, Sebi helped me code my demonstrator into an entire system in Unity.
Adapting to Unity and Blender while creating the entire engine was a steep curve, but there is so much delight in playing with lighting and effects in Blender! You can easily spend an entire weekend just playing with the curves to get those physics feelings right.
There is a ton of lighting, atmosphere and ‘’Pyrotechnics’’ I did in Unity, which in my view is an essential element to create engaging experiences and hooks - I just need people to delve in to truly experience the soundscape with those ‘’Pyrotechnic Puzzles".
A vehicle design. Playing with light in Blender is an absolute dream. To have volumetric lights and bloom in real time blows me away. Blender is free and is insanely broad and deep.
I eventually put the entire system together, and then the level design process began. Concepts came in very handy sketching out the levels, but executing them effectively was a tedious process of connecting prefabs in Unity to endless lists of game objects. I decided to plough on towards an hour long experience that is engaging for the player.
We've learned a ton in the process, and the game can always be improved, but at a certain point, I also wanted to package it and share version one with the world. The simulation engine we created in Unity is versatile enough for a wide variety of game and level designs. We may even license it out on the Unity Asset store if people are interested.
What are your thoughts behind current AI technologies and where they are going? How does this relate to your game?
Reading P. W. Singers' Wired for War and James Barrat's Our Final Invention sparked for me the urgency for safe AI in response to the risks of clinical drones dominating our skies. Our Final Invention is my favorite book on Artificial intelligence. Barrat outlines the likely event of an awakening of artificial super intelligence and its consequences in a variety of possible scenarios. Artificially intelligent swarms are not unlikely to appear in our skies one day in the future.
This game supports research for safe artificial intelligence, and I hope the game raises awareness of the autonomous remote drone clinical warfare discussion. In essence, our own AI revolution has begun - remote piloted drones are out there daily patrolling the skies. Reaper drones have been used for a decade to take part in silent patrols. In the very near future, exponentially accelerated innovation will speed up further advancements in autonomous behaviors. Most of us have seen The Terminator, yet few debates are public about the shifting landscape of the conduct of remote warfare. I want us to consider the ethical dilemmas behind allowing autonomous drones to monitor and engage on our own kind.
I agree with Elon Musk on keeping AI safe and beneficial. He said, "What we really need to do is make sure that life continues into the future. […] It’s best to try to prevent a negative circumstance from occurring than to wait for it to occur and then be reactive.”
Two views of two missions. The focus was on generating different atmospheres in each level. This includes lights, ambient sounds, objects and characters. The use of numerous real-time spotlights on the iPhone is now possible (although the phones can run quite hot after longer gameplay).
The goal in the controlling of these autonomous systems is to ensure there is human control. When harm occurs, who is responsible? Is it the fault of the AI or is it ours? We need to understand and judge beforehand the outcomes of what appear to be "advantageous" innovations, when in reality, these systems cause risk to human life and fail to protect the rights of the citizen.
The benefit of a clean warfare with pinpoint precision strikes may bring a relative global peace, but what is the psychological effect on the populations as the drones hang overhead? P. W. Singer describes the hidden dangers of this conduct as a type of cowardice by the populations who created it and become subject to it. As such, the Killer drones have significant drawbacks, as well, whether they are our own or in some rogue state’s control.
RedWaterOne is a virtual experience that brings remote clinical drone battles to the forefront, with the purpose of illustrating these dilemmas. It is entertainment, and it is also a learning curve for understanding what we can do better to make intelligent decisions for our future. With parts of the proceeds of the game, we plan to support the research towards safe AI with institutes such as FutureofLife.org, Campaign to Stop the Killer Robots, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and UNIDIR.
"Obviously there is no guarantee for success, but if you go with a gut feel and a hunch, it's a sure path to having something unique."
I know this has been a major passion project for you. What advice would you give to others about vision, commitment, and working toward their creative goals?
For me, BladeRunner is a great example of an epic success that started small, but over time its relevance and following has grown, bending the collective vision of the future. Now, that's an epic bar to set and by no means are we even close, but the idea is a slow, steady S-curve of gaining momentum.
The journey to get where we are has been a bit like sending a complete product into the world while discarding the normal path of marketing. I stuck very much to a strong vision and an inward confidence in world-building that combines my love for movies like Bladerunner, Ex Machina, and books like Dune. Often those unique pieces are less based on a popular ‘marketing’ approach and simply tell the strongest story to share a message.
In that light, I could say, stick with a unique vision when you have one. Don’t feel like you need to dilute it with too much focus on group testing and inputs initially - first, trust your gut. Obviously there is no guarantee for success, but if you go with a gut feel and a hunch, it's a sure path to having something unique.
The convoy is an AI controlled group that is searching for a path through the city. They will call in help so that you can guide them safely through the city's mayhem.
This goes for any creative vision you have - go do it and don’t worry if it takes a few years. With today's free online learning possibilities like YouTube, Brackeys, Andrew Price's Blender Guru, Ian Hubert, and many others, it is possible to learn Unity, Blender, Unreal Engine or any other skillset. It is so amazing to experiment, build and learn, and push something magic into the world.
Sebi and I have both grown beyond our expectations, much further then we could have imagined two years ago. Also my art has improved by hundreds of hours of drawing. In this light, taking a small step every day, a couple of hours here and there with discipline delivers an amazing harvest! This is the journey I have cherished most. So persevere, take small steps at a time, practice daily and dream big.
Bart Massee comes from a heritage of painters and architects active across the globe, and has a passion for visualization and design. He graduated from the Design Academy in Eindhoven, Netherlands in 1991, and worked freelance before becoming a product designer with Insight Product Development in Chicago. He moved back to the Netherlands to work with Philips Design in 2000, helping shape major disruptive innovation programs for Philips for more than a decade before joining HP in 2016 to work in Advanced Design. Next to this full-time role, he joined the innovation board for Astrea Water in 2017 and started the design process for the Astrea water bottle, and more recently the innovation board of Apnomed to tackle the dormant pandemic that is sleep apnea.
Bart also runs a small gaming startup, designing, coding and developing gaming experiments for the iPad and iPhone based on lifelike particle system studies. He has a passion for VR, exploring VR experiments with HP Omnicept, and is interested in drones, robotics, AI, virtual immersion and all related technologies. Bart lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and three kids, and enjoys flying his RC glider and drones, hiking, skiing and touring on his Royal Enfield motorcycle.
Hero Image by Bart Massee - "Planet Wolf 1061c is a real planet, it's the theatre of operations for the game. You can see the canyon lit up along the equator where the mining canyons are situated. Rendered in Blender."
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