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Case Study: A Monster's Expedition

Draknek & Friends, 2020

Monsters expedition: A Monster’s Expedition (Through Puzzling Exhibitions) is an open-world puzzle game by Draknek & Friends. A sometimes calming, sometimes funny, always delightful game, players control the Monster (which first appeared in a previous title, “A Good Snowman is Hard to Build”) and create bridges between the islands of an archipelago by knocking down trees and strategically rolling tree trunks into the water.

There were several converging challenges me and the artists faced on this title.  First, there were fairly strict rules for how the models needed to be shaped and colored.  For example, logs needed to be nearly perfectly cylindrical and always colored darker than the terrain.  Rocks needed to be either much darker or much lighter than the terrain and logs.  We couldn't use any sort of other object - crates, for example - for the collidable noun; they had to be rocks.  Water and terrain needed to have a clean visual line separating the two.

All of these (and more) rules were necessary so the game could be easily playable and consistent throughout.  A slight deviation in a different genre might give a scene some life-like texture, yet in the tightly controlled world of a puzzle game, players would read it as a signal of a new gameplay mechanic.  But strictly following these rules was, on the surface, at odds with my own goal of creating a lush, organic world that matched the tone of the music and narrative.

Furthermore, the design of levels and the overall flow of the critical path through the game was constantly shifting, so environmental artwork couldn’t be tied to narrative and had to be utterly swappable. And finally, given that this was a game funded by Apple for Apple Arcade, it needed to look amazing while also being able to run on mobile hardware.

We eventually settled on a concept of environmental biomes; self-contained collections of tree and rock meshes, terrain tile types, and unique colors that helped everything feel organic while still delivering the strict visual heirarchy we needed.  These biomes could be easily applied to levels via our internal level tools.  

Nearly all the art in the game utilizes a single shader I authored, which references a single atlas texture for color and a per-biome texture for terrain detail. Though it took some time to arrive at this destination, it meant that nearly everything on screen could be rendered in a single pass, which was great for mobile performance.

The character and titular Puzzling Exhibits didn't come into the mix until well into development. The narrative shifted in drastic ways a few times before we settled into the idea that the Monster from a previous game was on vacation, exploring a weird outdoor museum of humanity. I personally handled the modeling and animation of the Monster, and worked alongside two part time modeling contractors - Quinn Spence and Troy Kallis - to push the list of nearly 150 exhibits.

Between all these substantial tasks, I also handled VFX design, collaborated on UI/UX work, made trailers, and more... but I don't have any interesting stories about those.  All in all, A Monster's Expedition was terrifically rewarding, not only because it consistantly challenged me to bring my best to the table, but because the other folks sitting at the table were some of the best I've worked with.

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