István Zsuffa and Ildikó Tóth talked about the art and balance of Mandragora, a Metroidvania/Soulslike 2.5D side-scroller action RPG, gave advice to beginning designers, and discussed what keeps players engaged.
István Zsuffa: I’m István Zsuffa, Creative Director at Primal Game Studio. I work on pretty much everything but programming – I write design, I plan UI and levels, I handle lighting and I work on 3D models. I like to be in the thick of it.
In high school, I studied Art and Art History, but at college, I studied Programming. However, I left before getting my degree as my dream came true: a few guys, who I met at one of Hungary’s biggest scene parties, Ragest, invited me to join their development team and work on a speedboat simulator. While that game didn’t end up going anywhere, it’s where my game dev career began.
Before working at Primal Game Studio – which I founded with my brother and some friends in 2012 – I worked at a game development company called Black Hole Entertainment as a graphic designer, but I also had an active role in the foundation of the CG company Digic Pictures.
Before working on Mandragora, I worked on eight games in total, including an RTS in the world of Warhammer, a TPS sci-fi shooter, and an unannounced game in the League of Legends universe together with Riot Games. But Mandragora is the first game that I feel is completely my own.
Ildikó Tóth: I’m Ildikó Tóth, Art Lead on Mandragora. I design/build levels and I work on concept art, textures, and gameplay design.
I attended drawing classes from a very young age, where I had a wonderful teacher who guided my path until I ended up at an art college.
During college, I realized how different my interests are compared to "classic" graphics/painting and that concept art is indeed a real profession to pursue. So, after college, I freelanced and taught myself at home. Then, in 2014, I received an email from István, who invited me to join Primal based on my work found on the internet. I've been here ever since.
The first project I worked on was an unannounced game set in the world of League of Legends. My task was concept art and texturing.
Other than that, Mandragora is the only project I've worked on, but it's definitely where I’ve learned the most, especially about areas I didn't even think I was interested in before.
IZ: The initial idea for the game came to us during a trip we took to Ireland back in 2016. We were enchanted by the dark fantasy aesthetic of the country and its folklore, and we felt the need to create something extraordinary based on our experiences there. In 2018, after several months of ideation, Ildikó and I set things in motion, together with the team here at Primal Game Studio. Back then – in mid-2018 – there was just a handful of us. Now, there are over 25 awesome people in the Mandragora team.
Primal Game Studio: We often describe the game’s art style as a dark fantasy, painterly style. We want the game to feel gothic, beautiful, and memorable, and this of course does tie into the style of story that we want to tell. The world of Mandragora, known as Faelduum, is falling into disarray due to the damaging effects of Entropy, and we want to reflect that in both the visuals and the harsh moral choices players will make during their journey.
Our two main visual inspirations are Ori and the Blind Forest and Diablo 3. Both games have a visual style defined by beautiful, painterly textures and play with strong light and color. Of course, our goal was never to copy anyone else, but to create something that feels new and unique. It took a few years to find the final visual direction for Mandragora, but we definitely feel like it was worth it.
PGS: From the very start, we envisioned Mandragora as a game that mixes features from a variety of different genres to provide a new and unique experience to its players. Combat is slower, tactical, and challenging, but with a little effort also able to be learned – similar to Soulslike games. The levels are reminiscent of older Castlevania games, with interconnected levels in a huge world just waiting to be explored.
Character development is based on classic RPGs, with a large skill tree, many active abilities (spells and melee/ranged attacks), item crafting, and many more elements that result in a deep and complex system. For the narrative, we draw a lot of inspiration from a game we consider to be one of the best of all time – The Witcher 3, in the sense that here you’ll also be able to make decisions that can have small or large effects on the flow of the story, and that may also have moral repercussions.
PGS: We use Unreal Engine 4 for the game. We found it ideal as it gives our game designers the tools – such as the Blueprint visual scripting tool – to create and test features on the fly, without needing to constantly rely on the help of software engineers. It means that they can then focus on creating and polishing the game’s complex systems, such as the above-mentioned character development system, enemy and follower AI, and enemy pathfinding.
PGS: We quickly realized that without visuals, you can’t really create interesting enemies even at the prototype level. So we always start with concept art, and the visuals inform the gameplay, not the other way around. For example, if a monster has huge tendrils, then we begin thinking of abilities that utilize them fully – like the creature extending them and using them like a whip or digging them into the ground where they’ll later come up to attack with great force.
Of course, gameplay and visuals affect each other, so we’re always tweaking things to make sure that gameplay is enjoyable while still working in harmony with the visual side.
These days, coming up with anything unique is near impossible. It’s hard to create anything that isn’t met with “oh, this is just like this other thing”. I’d say that our monsters are perhaps most unique in their animations, at least compared to other games. Our animators have pretty much free rein over them – most designs don’t specify exactly how a given creature would move, which allows them a lot of creative freedom. The gameplay mechanics themselves may not be fully unique, but the visual style often helps them to feel that way.
If we had to give advice to beginning designers, these would probably be the two most important:
- Always use references for everything! This is the most important. Today’s games are a result of decades of improvement. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when you can build upon the knowledge that has been achieved through years of development. Play with a lot of other games, and see what you can learn from them. What did you like, and why? What didn’t you like, and how could it be improved? What would you make better?
- Even if you’re not a graphic designer or artist – as many designers come from the technical side – still always try to visualize your ideas. It’s much easier to continue working with and expand upon an idea if you can visualize it.
PGS: When the concept art of a character – whether it's an enemy or an ally – is ready, the team brings a bunch of references: we watch a lot of other games, movies, and random YouTube videos, and then we discuss them together and try to figure out what would be the most exciting and funniest direction that at the same time that also fits well into the game. From there, however, the animators are largely given free rein, and this often leads to them doing completely unique and surprising things.
This is how a roundhouse kick became the standard attack for the huge albino werewolf. When we saw it for the first time, we were afraid that it would seem too funny and would ruin player immersion. But as we added fur, effects, and lighting to the character model, it turned out it wasn’t too funny at all – instead, it ended up feeling unique and interesting, and will definitely stay in the game as a result.
We use Autodesk Maya for animating the game’s characters. We also built a complex animation system within Unreal that deals with thousands of unique animations (the player character alone has more than 700 unique animations, and it’s still growing!), transitions, mirroring, and so on.
PGS: Our goal is always that if the player's character dies, they should not feel that the game is punishing and unfair – they should just feel like they made a mistake or that they did not learn new mechanics well enough. The goal is for them to simply approach it with an attitude of "But I’ll get them next time!". To do this, all the mechanics the player encounters must be understandable. If you come across something new, your first thought should be, "Ah, okay, so I need to do this and this differently next time." If we succeed in achieving this, then the player will not be angry with the game (and want to uninstall it) but will feel that they can and should keep going.
We have accumulated a lot of experience over the past few years, so we can do the basics for a new monster or a new trap without actively considering the above principles. But we, the developers, simply aren’t enough on our own to make sure these elements get perfected. This aspect also requires the help of gamers. We hold regular audience tests with one or two players, where we test certain aspects of the game with people who have not played Mandragora before. We analyze these results and try to incorporate them into the games as much as possible.
The biggest challenge with the above is that as many of them are seasoned players, many of them already have experience and preferences. You can't please everyone, and that’s why, at the beginning of the development process, we determined the target audience for whom the game is most tailored – these are Metroidvania and 2D Soulslike players – and we always first check whether a given feature is suitable for them.
PGS: As we mentioned, perhaps the most important thing is that the player is always ready for their next challenge – but in such a way that after each failure they know exactly what they did wrong and how they could do it better the next time.
There are also many other elements that can help keep a player engaged with the game. Here are three we’d like to highlight:
- Story – If the game’s narrative is exciting and well-paced, with various twists along the way, then just as with a good book or film, it’ll keep the player interested. Our goal with Mandragora’s narrative is to offer this kind of story to all our players. That’s why we’re working with Brian Mitsoda as our Narrative Lead, who’s a very experienced narrative designer and writer with plenty of great work on RPGs behind him, like Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.
- Character Development – This is very easy to mess up, and we’re still working on how to make this the best experience possible. If the character develops too quickly, if the player finds too many items, if they end up with too much gold to spend, then the whole system quickly becomes boring. But if you go too far in the opposite direction, the player loses motivation because they don’t see how they could possibly achieve anything. We want to find the right balance between too speedy development and that grind.
- Varied levels – Every level in the game has some unique attributes:
- The layout of the levels differs – for example, there are levels with plenty of verticality and platforming, and levels that are flatter. There are more open levels, and there are also levels with plenty of small hidden spaces.
- Levels have different enemies and combinations of those enemies, which require different ways of thinking from the player.
- Every level has something entirely unique, too. These might be interesting trap mechanics or visual puzzles that exist only in one level of the game.
- The player will also be able to unlock so-called ‘Special Movement abilities’, like the Grappling Hook and Double Jump, which will change the dynamics of their movement (not to mention the fact that these abilities can also help the player gain access to new areas of previously visited levels.)