The Bottomless Pit

by kaminazo

Seems like I’m getting into a good habit of producing, and a bad habit of documenting it. But, with increased production comes more content: evidence that I’ve been churning out good work worth talking about.

By far the heftiest project has been The Bottomless Pit. Another mod for Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The concept is that the game didn’t have a bottomless pit, and I think it needs one. The physics behind falling are a bit ridiculous in the vanilla game. Even a short tumble off a rock can result in an untimely death. So this made the playability of the mod quite…challenging to design, at first.

There’s a big hole in the earth with an automatic-loading doorway that I’ve dropped into my favorite region of Skyrim: The Rift. Gorgeous for its autumn leaves and perfect for its flat expanses of wilderness, most of my mods end up there now. There are lots of places between Ivarstead and Riften that have few pre constructed houses, farms, dungeons, and outposts. This makes dropping a relatively large custom environment easier, so it won’t overlap or conflict with other user-created mods.

Upon jumping into the unknown abyss, the player is loaded into a free-fall thru a series of themed chasms. The character must then avoid being crushed by their own weight as they plummet into the core of Skyrim. I wanted to create a mini-game within the world that challenged the conventional methods of dungeon-crawling. Facing downward as you fall, you must react vertically instead of horizontally, since all the action takes place on the Z-axis. It also creates a feeling of vertigo, and it’s quite easy to lose your bearings as you fall. I also craved the seeming impossibility of older games like Capcom made for the NES—forcing the player to memorize the obstacles and timing as they go. This requires a lot of dying and starting over. But when you finally pass that impossible section, moving on to something new is its own reward.

There was a giant obstacle, however. The player never slows down while falling. There are a few game settings linked to falling that can be manipulated in the Creation Kit, but none of them affect fall acceleration. That setting must be hard-coded into the game’s physics engine. The only way to combat this was to add “rests” at certain intervals, when the fall speed became too great for the game’s controller movements speeds to react quickly enough to avoid crashing into something. I did two things: first, I split the pit into 7 different “levels,” each with their own auto load doors to break up the space and make it easier on the game engine to load all assets. Upon loading into a new cell, even if the player was falling 3,000 meters/sec, they are reset to zero. The second was the only other way to slow the player down other than death: water. Even if you’re falling at the speed of light, you will sustain no damage if you land in water. The pool only has to be about waist deep to avoid becoming a puddle of flesh.

The Pit, itself was born out of a need for me to do something “simple.” I really I needed to get something done. I set out to create once section of the Pit each day for 7 days, then spend the next week cleaning it up, making a page on Nexus, taking screen shots, and making a YouTube trailer. So, v1.0 was born in only 2 weeks.

The first two weeks were great. Got tons of feedback. Released a second version with some bug fixes. But then I realized I had been a bit greedy when designing it. I have bought all the Downloadable Content for Skyrim. So naturally when I start a new design project I want to use all the game assets available to me. But then your mod becomes reliant on those DLC’s and you have automatically alienated anyone who doesn’t own them from ever playing it. Comment forum backlash can be an eye-opening experience.

The process of “removing” a DLC from a mod is taxing. The initial process is easy, click and delete. But with all that information goes all the randomly placed meshes and actors you forgot relied on that DLC. Now begins the slow process of hand replacing each one with the closest thing you can find from the original game: rocks, pillars, traps, activators, ice flows  etc. The glitchy CK even removed some of the assets that weren’t associated with them. After deleting the Hearthfire DLC dependency, half of my rocks disappeared for no reason. Some assets even randomly rotated themselves, or shifted about. Fixing these errors through the removal of three DLC’s was a nightmare.

About a month later, I had finally released a new version with zero DLC dependencies. That was a great feeling. Appeasing your commentors can be a wonderful thing because they reward you with tons of comments, endorsements, and suggestions. One guy even took a professional photo story series of the Pit with his custom character. In the process, I made many good contacts. One of whom I am currently collaborating on a new player house mod.

Then came v2.0. I had a few ideas of how to expand the Pit using the water pools I had arbitrarily thrown in to thwart the short-sighted game fall acceleration mechanic. I wanted to create an underwater adventure. One where you had to explore a vast underwater system of tunnels connected to the pit that would take you further into the depths, but make you rely on another gruesome form of death: drowning.

I’m not sure which is worse, falling to your death or drowning. Either way, to get to the bottom of this Pit, you are forced to overcome both. Of course I threw in some magical things to help you from repeated death, but navigating underwater can be horribly discombobulating in Skyrim. All of the underwater image spaces, whether you’re swimming through an icy ocean or a mystical spring, are incredibly foggy. There is absolutely no visibility, even under a mountain stream that in nature would be crystal clear. I wanted the water in my underwater labyrinth to be translucent as glass. So I authored my own underwater image spaces. It took forever! There are literally thousands of settings for water. And the first two updates of my v2 release were riddled with a black-screen glitch that rendered the entire cell unplayable.

With the help of 5 community members who did BETA testing on about 15 different versions of the Pit, we finally got it working. This took about 5 weeks. During the process I fixed a number of other glitches and finally got the whole thing polished. Now I am quite happy with the results. Some Russian gamers even emailed me because they wanted to do a Russian translation of the mod. They loved it that much!

In the process of doing this mod, I learned so much. Now I know that a good mod panders to the lowest system requirements—including DLC. I’ve also learned to trust the input and advice of random community members who show interest. They ended up being an invaluable resource for bug testing and optimization. I learned a slough of things about advertising a mod on the web. I made a little trailer video in iMovie to post to YouTube and embed on my mod description page. I think you’ll like it. It gives a pretty good impression of what the Pit is for those of you who need visuals to go with the words (like me!).

All-in-all this is my best game design experience yet. I hope my next one will be as fruitful.