Hey! We're Katapult, a small team based in New York (USA) currently making a game called CHKN. It's an open-world sandbox where life itself is your strongest tool to survive on a (mostly) uninhabited tropical island.
Fig. 1: Chickens. Also eggs.
Early on in development, we knew we wanted to encourage creativity and experimentation -- like our favourites in the genre do so well -- but we also wanted a make a game where our creations reacted to us emotionally as much as we reacted to them. With that thought, our next step seemed obvious: allow the player to create living, breathing creatures with genuine personalities and feelings that respond in unexpected and surprising ways. Just like in real life.
It was an interesting challenge and, eventually, the lifeblock was born to rise to the occasion. It's a small, seemingly unassuming "cube" that sits at the heart of CHKN, literally, and does much more work than one might expect. So, we thought a dive into the complexities of this building block would be interesting to share.
Fig.2: Some lifeblocks aren't even square! Preposterous.
CREATING LIFE, BLOCK BY BLOCK
The humble lifeblock started simple enough: as the foundation of all life in the game. There are many different types of lifeblocks and, whether in Adventure or Creative mode, creature building begins when a body lifeblock is placed around its heart. From there, assembly continues using an assortment of additional blocks of various types -- eyes, mouths, feet, etc.
The key here is that there are no rules to using them, so the player can experiment and be as creative as they want, shaping any creature they can imagine. There are the ol' standbys, of course: reptiles, giraffes, octopi, dragons, chickens, etc. But they can also combine parts to build whatever this thing is…
Fig.3: An actual nightmare
When building is finished, the creature literally comes to life, complete with a unique personality that will evolve as the player continues to interact with it. This is because not only are lifeblocks literal building blocks, but each one is also coded with various traits and emotions. That particular combination of lifeblocks (and their traits) works together with a system we call "empathic intelligence" to drive the creature's mood and determine how it reacts to various situations.
Mechanically, empathic intelligence starts with a set of numbers that represent "memories" based on how the creature has been treated thus far. For example, “I was pet 10x, hit 5x, played with 20x”. Those memories, along with other data (senses from things like eyes and ears, as well as current emotional state), run through various algorithms to determine what to eat, when to flee, and who is friend or foe, dictating to the creature how it should react.
Fig.4: Dragons have all the feels.
So, how will this new life respond to the player's actions? To the environment and other creatures around it? To hamburgers for dinner or a rousing game of fetch?
The player won't know. Not right away. The creature communicates what it's feeling via facial expressions, sounds, and actions, and it's the player's job to interpret those emotions to tame and befriend this new abomination island-dweller.
TOOLS FOR SURVIVAL
Like any good friend, tamed creatures will be there by the player's side as they explore the environment around them.
Fig. 5: BFFs
We wanted creatures to be more than just companions, though -- to be useful and have more opportunities for reaction -- so lifeblocks got an upgrade. In addition to bits that affect personality, they also have special abilities and stats imbued within, making creatures very important to the quest for survival in CHKN's Adventure Mode.
A hatchet could be used to chop down a tree and gather wood for buildings, but a well-crafted creature with a good pecking beak and greater reach can do it much more efficiently. Putting a saddle on a creature with speedy lifeblocks built in will help the player explore their surroundings and get to those hard-to-reach resources much more quickly than on foot. Collecting that wild dragon's parts to create their own fire-breathing comrade would certainly be made easier by sending a creature made of lifeblocks with high health and good offensive capabilities into the fray. (They just have to make sure it's not a scaredy-cat first or it may decide to flee instead!)
And when Poachers show up at their door?
Fig. 6: "To war, Mr. Pigglesworth!"
Having a strong bodyguard around to defend both their homestead and weaker creatures from these plunderers on piggy-back is definitely the way to go.Combining lifeblocks with various stats and abilities in interesting ways allows the player to create, edit, or tame creatures specific to the task at hand. As players build stronger creatures, they can venture further from home, collect new resources, defeat more difficult enemies, gather different lifeblocks, and grow to face any new challenges the island has in store.
LIFE IN EARLY ACCESS
CHKN is currently in Early Access on Steam, which we felt was key to our development process.
We wanted to work together with the community and get lifeblocks into their hands sooner rather than later. Seeing how they play the game and hearing their thoughts is the best way to understand what they want from CHKN, and Early Access helps us do that. Our players have provided great feedback and ideas in our forums, and come up with unique interactions and methods of survival that we never would have discovered otherwise.
Fig. 7: CHKN Army - YouTube Brigade
We'd also planned from the start to update often, and players of Early Access games expect that kind of frequency. They return regularly to check out what's new and are met with new experiences, which they turn into more feedback for us to parse. It's a nice feedback loop, and it's been integral when deciding what to include in the patches we release, which go out roughly every two weeks and usually include feature updates, bug fixes, new content, and quality of life improvements.
Speaking of updates...
Just like a player building a creature, we're building CHKN block by block, and we're currently focusing on getting to feature complete by early 2017. By then, there'll be a new island layout, with points of interest to explore and more obstacles for players and their creatures to overcome in Adventure Mode.
Fig.8: It's a chicken foot! META!
Multiplayer will be finalised and matchmaking added, for those times when the player wants to pit abominations against each other or survive with a friend. And even more life will be packed into those cubes, with additional abilities and interactions being added along the way. Bees will sting, bats will fly, and creatures will have more sophisticated reactions as empathic intelligence evolves.
But even then, our road map doesn't end there. We'll keep working with the community to grow CHKN and see what else lifeblocks can accomplish.
SO...CHKN or EGG?
Oh, right. The age old question. Well, we like to think the CHKN came first, but it had the ears of a pig. And possibly elephant feet. And an octopus tentacle for a tail? But that's the beauty of lifeblocks. Whatever comes first doesn't have to be a chicken or an egg! (Or anything known to mankind, even.) It's really up to you.
Fig.9: You're welcome, mankind.
If you'd like to know more about CHKN, you can hit us up on Twitter or visit our page here on Made with Unity. We also post to our Steam page regularly with updates and info. (And if you happen to pick up some lifeblocks of your own to experiment with, let us know what you make!)