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The team of Art Exponent talked about their game under development Curzon Line and shared some details of the production: the use of Megascans and UE4, work management, game production in a small team, and more.
80lv: Can you tell us a bit about your studio and what you’ve been up to recently? How did you end up with the idea of building your own project?
Team: Art Exponent was originally set up as an asset creator studio in 2016. We started out with creating packs of photo references, HDRis, blueprint systems, 2D and 3D assets. We also worked on a VR storytelling demo based on a Japanese novel. In the midst of all, we figured that we want to move on and start building our own original IP.
The idea for Curzon Line was born when we, once again, reached the end-game in DayZ and there was not that much to do anymore. On that evening we embarked on outlining a game design for something that has the dark atmosphere of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series and the challenges of a modern survival game. We also wanted to make sure that the game will have a rich storyline with side quests and engaging gameplay loops.
About Curzon Line
80lv: What is Curzon Line? Where does the action take place, what were your main inspirations?
Team: In a historical term the Curzon Line is a demarcation line between Poland and its eastern neighbors. It was a natural choice of a theme for our game as we are culturally familiar with Eastern Europe. A combination of the gloomy Eastern bloc architecture and the beautiful rural landscape seemed a perfect foundation for the atmosphere we want to achieve.
Poland was also a rational choice when it comes to a potential worldwide conflict in the light of the Russian invasion. Not enough game developers take the opportunity to describe the very beginning of a nuclear conflict – for how long supplies in malls would last, at what point uniformed service would lose control, how soon a humanitarian crisis would unfold. All of these thoughts were our inspiration on how to build the world and the mechanics; grounding our game in realism on every level possible, from calories in a tin can to a worldwide conflict scenario.
Game Production in a Small Team
80lv: You have quite a small team. Could you tell us a little bit about the way you’re approaching the production challenges with a limited number of people who can build content? What tools help you build the game faster and more efficiently?
Yurie: We follow 2 rules to save time.
- Use third-party assets whenever possible
- Take advantage of all sorts of software/services as much as we can.
While producing original assets sounds attractive and aspiring, you need to keep in mind that first and foremost we want to ship the game. 3D software is developing so much these days, there’s no reason not to make use of it. World Machine, SpeedTree, Megascans, Unreal’s Procedural Foliage Volumes have been most helpful so far in terms of time efficiency. Substance Designer, on the other hand, is not the greatest for that, however, it is a necessary tool when you need a specific material. As for marketplace assets, one thing that really sped up the process was Procedural Landscape Ecosystem by Gokhan Karadayi. Even though the third-party assets we have make a fair part of the foundation of the game, we’re planning to go back in and polish the environments by hand. I believe it gives the environment a soul.
Use of Megascans
80lv: You’re using a lot of Megascans here. What advantages does it bring? What kind of assets do you think are the most useful here? What’s your general take on the place of Megascans in the current workflow?
Krzysztof: I like Megascans for speed and flawless quality. That library is an absolute best friend of an indie developer. While I like Substance Source, I think Megascans is just a bigger and more of a diverse option that also includes great real-time 3D props and raw high poly. However, depending on your needs there is no reason you can’t use both.
I use Megascans not only for any tiling surface such as landscapes, ground planes and walls but also their stunning selection of 3D foliage and debris. All of their materials come with a heightmap which makes it super easy to get accurate blends with height-lerp based vertex paint or layered landscape shaders.
80lv: Did you give Mixer a chance? It seems like a very quick tool to build procedural materials out of scans but not as precise as SD. What’s your professional take on it?
Krzysztof: Yes, I used Mixer extensively. I like it for sheer speed but it lacked flexibility for me. I’d always pick Substance Designer for more complex materials but most of the time mixing 2-3 layers of existing materials in Mixer does the job. Having said that, after trying Substance Alchemist, I don’t think I can go back to Mixer anytime soon. If there were any particular functions that you’re missing, you can easily add new ones on top of the existing layer operations in Alchemist. My current workflow is pretty much taking raw scans from Megascans and mixing them together in Alchemist.
Advantages of Unreal Engine in Production
80lv: UE4 obviously gives tons of options with the game dev tools. In your experience, what were the most important parts of the engine that helped you to build the game?
Michał: I like UE4 for multiple reasons. Firstly, it gives me full access to the source code which is really empowering and helps to solve any given problem without hacky workarounds.
Secondly, the blueprints system gives you incredible freedom when it comes to prototyping new systems and debugging them. Even after transferring an algorithm into C++, the communication between blueprint actors and code classes is smooth and easy to maintain.
Blueprints are also a great ‘collaboration bridge’ which allows you to exchange ideas between coders and artists without a hassle. I can expose certain functions and variables from code to ‘Unreal Motion Graphics UI Designer’ (UMG) so artists can go in and take care of the front end.
I also wanted to give a shout-out to everyone in UE4 Answer Hub and the community, it is a great time-saving resource to have at hand.
80lv: Did you rely on the ready-made assets?
Yurie: Yes, as I mentioned above we are using quite a bit of third-party assets, mostly from UE4 marketplace and a few others like Gumroad, etc. We tried to outsource as much as possible at the early phase to get things forward speedily with an intention of refining ourselves later on. As three people cannot cover all the elements the game requires, consulting an expert in the fields we’re not familiar with is inevitable to cut corners and bring the contents to the highest quality at the same time.
80lv: As indie game developers with the background in some bigger companies and bigger projects, what did you find most challenging in terms of management, quality control and so on?
Team: It can get hectic sometimes, especially with overtime at work and tight schedule at home but it’s been a satisfying two years. We are trying to pour at least 3-6 hours into the project on weekdays and work throughout weekends. About once a week we have a meeting where we plan ahead and try to find new ways to be efficient. There were a few services that we found incredibly useful: G Suite (file sharing), Trello (task management), Discord (organized day-to-day communication) and Skype (conferences & screen sharing).
Also when it comes to decision making, we leave it to one’s discretion as much as possible. It makes the process much smoother – we trust each other and discuss only when there is an absolute need, that way there are fewer meetings and no meeting without decisions.
80lv: Finally, when do you think we’ll be able to see the game in action?
Yurie: As much as I would love to be able to announce it now, we, unfortunately, do not have a solid release date for the game in action. What I can give you is that we’ve been working on it for 2 years now and the game has the fundamental core systems like dynamic weather, advanced inventory system, and life-like health mechanics. There is no guarantee as we’re a small team where everyone has a full-time job, however, we have been working on it non-stop, and we will be for as long as it takes. Occasional updates & news will be announced on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram or you can sign up for a newsletter through Curzon Line website.