In this week’s retrospective, we are taking a look at some of the houses in We Happy Few. As most of you know, the game takes place in the south west of England and more specifically a set of fictional islands called Wellington Wells.
During the pre-production stage of the project, we settled on 1960s England as the setting for the game, and began research on architecture, music and artistic inspiration, and recent English history (as it would have been at the time). Our Art Director Whitney is particularly interested in architecture and atmosphere, and how it contributes to creating a unique and interesting experience. She spent a great deal of time researching architecture (even spending some of her vacation time in a trip to the UK, to understand how the game should feel).
Architecture is an important facet of We Happy Few, but it’s a pretty big topic! So in this weekly, we will only touch on the subject of houses, as along with the Wellies and their masks, creating houses was the first step towards building our world.
Inspirations and early concept
When creating the first concept, Whitney looked in a great deal of detail at the concept of “contrast”, if you’ll pardon the reference, as it was a major theme in 1960s England. It was a time of great social change, where the traditional past clashed with optimism about the future, young culture vs old, etc. We took this symbolism and exaggerated it to fantastical levels all throughout We Happy Few.
We wanted a contrast between different houses, but also between their interior and exterior. Our Village houses reflect the symbolism of rejecting history for an idealistic view of the future, and our Garden District houses contrast with the Village by showing the other side of the coin (it’s not like England was always pretty and mod - only parts of the world were that happy idealistic reality).
The exterior of the Village houses were inspired by two styles, the Tudor houses from The Shambles, York and the stone houses from Haworth. The outside is old, crumbling, historic, and reflects real history. The inside is clean, modern, overly cheery, blissfully rejecting history and looking towards the future. The inside has inspiration from minimalist, mid century designers such as Robin Day and Arne Jacobsen. To maintain consistency, the Garden District houses have similar exteriors, but would have older interiors.
A little note about the stone - it's stained dark grey from the soot, back when england was heated by coal.
Believe it or not, but a world like We Happy Few doesn’t start out very pretty. The first buildings we put into the game were shells designed to test metrics - something our level designers could look through and figure out concrete things like “how much space to we need to move around, how will the AI walk through the areas with you” and then more esoteric things like “how should these spaces feel”. We started with these houses because in those days, we didn’t anticipate that we’d have anything bigger than a house.
Here is a picture of a very early prototype for the world, which we have never shown before! This is one of the first procedural prototypes.
Most of the houses are attempts to match the level design requirements with the artistic vision - how do we create the thin, terraced houses that we wanted for the art, but also have interesting gameplay areas?
You’ll also notice in the left hand pic the first two early art prototypes. The building on the corner was an interactive shop - the precursor to the Butcher today. The second building from the left is the first “filler” house - houses that we created to fill space, because we didn’t want every house to be interactive, so that the world would “feel” more like a city.
This was a gameplay decision we made because we wanted a sense of scale to the city, but if we made everything interactive, we’d have to make each individual house have much, much less loot (given that loot density is a function of size of the island, and the rough amounts of items we want you to be able to get). You’ll notice that other games do this - if you think of the Witcher 3, relatively few houses are enterable. This is a trick many games use to balance space, size, density and workload (because if we made every house enterable, we’d have to have many, many more variations) required to build a game.
A Familiar Look
Once we figured out the metrics, and felt confident that the spaces and concept would work, we could begin work on the first “real” houses! This is the first step from pre-production into production, as we focused on creating a build for PAX.
We built filler houses, interactive houses, and “shops” for the show. You can see on the left an example of each. On the left is the filler house - houses designed to blend into the background, and not draw your attention. In the middle is the interactive house - lights around the doors to indicate there is something worthwhile inside. On the right is a shop - the first “encounters” in the game, which were designed to be special. During PAX we only had two: the Butcher and the Odds & Ends shop, which both had a small challenge to get inside and unlock a reward. If you found the reward, we gave you a key to We Happy Few, to help us test as we went forward.
Once we finished PAX, we realised that a lot of people were excited about what we were doing. We realised we needed to improve the quality of what we were building, as well as the scope, and our next step was Kickstarter. One of the tiers gave people access to the in-development branches, the first of which looked like this:
On the left is a Village house, very similar to the one in the picture above. However, it looks very different because the lighting in the game dramatically affects the appearance of the 3D art. The Kickstarter build had a very sickly green feel, that we thought was an okay start but wasn’t really what we wanted.
On the middle and right are the exterior and interior of the first Garden District houses! We had realised that we needed a larger environment diversity, so rather than have dilapidated houses in the Village (which had been the initial plan), we created a new biome - an area full of this stuff. You can see that the inspirations are fairly similar, but are abandoned/destroyed as a result of WW2 and neglect. The art of this area was intended to evoke the loss of tradition and history.
After Kickstarter, we realised that we would need a significant amount of investment and testing to create the game we wanted, so we chose to go onto Early Access. We knew that the houses would require a big upgrade.
You can see that the style of the houses has remained consistent. However, the quality of the assets and placement has increased dramatically. Hurray! Finally something that was beginning to look good. We added substantial foliage, improved textures, and gave more character to the Garden District buildings (which were lacking before Early Access).
The lighting changes we made also presented this art far better, so that the detail wasn’t lost in the gloom. Overall, we were very happy with how the game looked for Early Access. However, we weren’t quite done yet! One thing you can notice about the houses in the above shots is that they don’t blend in brilliantly with the environment yet - they still look like they’re being plopped in sporadically. So we decided to improve that, along with the ongoing improvement of the house art to match the quality of the other areas of the game (that we have kept quiet about).
And here’s where we are today?
If you’re looking closely, you’ll spot a few changes to the houses. The first is that Village houses now come with alleyways - an improvement we made to allow for better Village hide and seek with the Bobbies, and also more controlled access to the back of houses. We also improved the interiors, with new interior layouts and stealth improvements.
For the garden district, we changed how the buildings were laid out so that they are more like older English cottages, and blend in better with their environment. We added more variation and opportunities for stealth and vertical gameplay.
And finally, just because we think it’s cool, here are a couple more concepts that we created along the way, to help the artists visualise what things could look like:
Developing the houses was a highly iterative process - a constant balance between scope, ambition, quality, and gameplay constraints. Dealing with that inside the procedural world has been a complicated process, but in the end we are quite happy with the result. It’s unique, and we’re confident that there won’t be anything else quite like it.
Thanks for reading!
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