TGC Retrospective : Gameplay
From The Ground Up
Creating a golf game from absolute scratch, any game for that matter, and getting the gameplay to a point where you have a sizable audience that enjoys playing it regularly and you can proudly and honestly say as a developer that you enjoy the game yourself when you go home and sit on the couch to play a few rounds months or years after release, it’s quite something. But for the community to have emerged like it has with The Golf Club, the superb efforts of the TGC Tours web team, and of course (no pun intended), the dedicated course designers continually conjuring up both beautiful and challenging works of art with the power of the Greg Norman Course Designer tools… it’s been phenomenal and immensely satisfying to have been involved with the development team on this game.
We put together a brand of gameplay which was aimed at a balance of simulation, fun and accessibility that would appeal to a wide audience of golf gamers rather than focus on a small niche or risk fracturing the player-base through use of multiple sets of gameplay mechanics and difficulty levels.
At its core, we wanted everyone who played the game to essentially be playing together on the same level playing field from the first shot off the tee on Hole 1, regardless of which of the 1000’s of golf courses you chose to play.
The Early Days
Writing this short retrospective gave me the opportunity for the first time in a while to go and look back through a whole bunch of old design notes, mocks, and screenshots from early builds of the game, from way back in the early days of pre-production. We are talking stuff that dates back to the spring of 2013 here.
As some indication of our starting point for creating gameplay from scratch for a golf game, note that it did not have a name back in those days and the course generation system was in its infancy well before gameplay work began, the first place we began was with prototyping the physics of simply launching a golf ball through the air, then came club impact physics and experimenting with loft and attack angles and the use of different clubs, adding the influence of hitting from different surfaces, as well as ball bounce and roll physics. This Ball Launcher prototype didn’t have a heck of a lot of gameplay to it just yet, as at this point it was simply a ‘press button to fire the ball’ type deal but it was an important stepping stone.
Through early to mid-development we continued work on tuning the flight of the ball and as well as things like the bounce and roll of the ball on the different turfs and greens, setting the club carry distances and introducing the different shot types to accompany the normal swing. Early work on the wind system began during this time, as did the introduction of controller based gameplay input and the use of the analog swing mechanic.
Motion capture was shot at an external studio, and soon we would be introducing golfer animations into the game and working out how to get it to jive smoothly with the swing mechanic to give a relatively satisfying sense of fluid and natural control of the swing whenever you execute a shot. A pretty important part of the play experience is the look and feel of the swing so we wanted to get this as right as possible on our first attempt, though there is always room for improvement.
Multiplayer was always a hot topic of discussion among the team. From the early outset we knew we wanted to have the ability to compete against online opponents. However, developing a fully live synchronous multiplayer system provides its own unique challenges and requires a significant investment in resources. Alternatively we decided to experiment with what became the Ghost Ball system, or as it was known internally the “Echo” system, an asynchronous method of providing a feeling of competitive play against opponents who have already registered shot and scorecard data while playing a round on the given course.
Following a quick prototype in which it showed much promise, we could envision a bunch of different applications of the system which would eventually lend itself to the online tours and tournament play environment, as well as such things as playing turn-based play, or joining a round your friend already has in progress on a course. Thus we were able to give the user an online play experience which feels close to what you would expect from a fully live synchronous play exchange with another player.
Though the asynchronous system was not without lag when we first started out, we have since implemented solutions to curtail the lag between the time your friend takes a shot and the time golfer begins his swing animation and it is something we are looking to address further to continue closing that gap, and improving the multiplayer experience both from the on-boarding and connectivity perspective. There is still a lot of interesting places we would like to explore to take the system up a notch or two.
Later-development & Early-Access
As we pushed towards the later stages of development there was more and more a focus on the online competition modes, stats tracking, achievements and leaderboards, improvements to the wind system (more would come post-launch too), smoothing out the collision system for when the ball comes into contact with course objects and trees, and also more tuning of the player animations and swing mechanic.
It was also during this period of time when we were heavily play-testing the game internally, and then into the Steam early-access period where more and more direct external user feedback was had, that more key design decisions were made, which seemed huge calls at the time, but really helped us push the gameplay along to create a challenging and satisfying golf experience. Things like removing target navigation cursors from the Scout Camera, removing pre-shot flight arc displays, dialing back the automatic math on carry distances and loft adjustments, dropping the use of Swing meter and Putting meter on-screen displays, things which for example take you out of the look-and-feel of the golf experience and place your mind frame into a box in the corner of the screen or hand you too much instant success on a platter. Many of these later design decisions helped tipped the balance of gameplay towards being a more rewarding experience, even if for the silent majority of golf gamers it would also result in a moderately steeper learning curve, the payoff of making that perfect approach shot or sinking that huge putt would feel all the more sweeter.
We always knew we wanted to steer more towards a simulation golf experience than an arcade one, and as mentioned it was during the late stages of development and into Steam early-access where the feedback was invaluable and led to some tweaks which continued to improve gameplay. This of course continued into the post-launch period and informed many of the dev team’s conversations and decisions on gameplay going forward on title updates.
In the time since the game first officially launched on PS4, XB1 and PC we have pushed out a number of updates, some of which included some gameplay adjustments and anti-cheating measures. Perhaps the most polarizing one of these adjustments among the community were the changes to the Swing Mechanic to untie (or decouple) the swing from the framerate, otherwise known to the community as “Swing-Gate”. This was a necessary change at the time and many who bemoaned the change at the time were unaware that the game had an exploit which made it far too easy to accidentally register a full powered shot when not hitting with a full backswing. In hindsight though, we probably were a little hasty in rolling out the update to the swing, but subsequently we got straight to work on smoothing out the few niggles in the system which was making it a bit tough for some people to consistently whack the ball with a full-hearted swing.
From out of the whole “Swing-Gate” saga came another big positive where we experimented with implementing a server-based system for allowing us to make rolling tweaks to gameplay that we could push directly to the user when they are logged into the TGC server, without the need for rolling out a full updated data-package. This then meant that we could gauge the response to gameplay adjustments (far beyond just our own internal dev team and QA testing) and make further tweaks as necessary. And if we reach the sweet-spot for that particular piece of gameplay, we simply commit to making the change permanent for the future.
Into The Future
There were also things about how the game played, and that many folks have been vocal about, that we totally agree with could use more improvement but many of these items were simply not quick tweaks or adjustments, otherwise we would have rolled them out long ago. Stuff like improving the challenge of executing a perfect flop shot, or making it more challenging to hit a good fairway shot off the tee, adjusting physics systems, or giving the user more freedom with how they chip around the greens, to name just a few. These such things require changes to the system that are a little more complex and we want to give them the appropriate care and attention if we are to tackle them all.
From the beginning we have drawn plenty of inspiration from our favourite golf games of yesteryear, and always keeping in mind that at the end of the day the game needs to be a golf simulation but it also needs to be fun and relatively accessible, or there won’t be enough of an audience to justify us working on it.
It’s a constant battle for balance. The same type of battle just about any game experiences in its development cycle, but it is truly one that we on The Golf Club team have relished, and continue to enjoy weighing up the next piece of feedback, the next feature or the next improvement that will help drive TGC gameplay forward.
And it’s our own love and belief in the game, driven by the passion of our great community that continues to inspire us to improve gameplay and make TGC an even better experience for golf nuts, and casual and novice golf gamers alike, in the near future.