ShaderBunny, a Solo Game Developer behind the top-down hack-and-slash game Dawn One, has spoken about the development of the game, explained why Unreal Engine was chosen for the project, and told us how the engine's Blueprints system helps in creating smooth animations and high-octane gameplay mechanics.
I am now a Freelance Generalist, but it all started in the nineties, when my brother and I were teens and crazy and decided to make a game. Against all odds, we finished it, and with this game in hand, I landed my first job in the industry. I've been working in games ever since.
I like to be hands-on with software, so I never held managerial positions, but I switched teams and gained experience in different domains: level design, general game art, UI, and motion graphics. Also, I always had side projects where I learned about UX and game design, characters, and animation, and I used to be active in the modding community, which was a lot of fun.
One morning, I had an idea for a combat mechanic that would maybe work. I started sketching, one thing led to another, and that's how Dawn One and ShaderBunny started.
Dissolving the game title in and out with a render target generated from Unreal Motion Graphics
Getting Started With Unreal Engine
I started with Unreal Engine back when Unreal Engine 3 was the freshest version of the engine. I was used to in-house game engines that were rarely feature-complete, so Unreal Engine felt new and refreshing. The coolest bits were the Content Browser, the node-based Material Editor, and Post Process Effects. It was so artist-friendly for the time, years ahead of everything else.
Is Unreal Engine Only Good for Realistic Shooters?
It's a misconception. Unreal Engine gives you the freedom to do whatever you want – from film VFX and motion graphics all the way to tactical turn-based strategy games. I can't think of any other tech that lets you produce such diverse content and applications.
As for realism, look at games like Hi-Fi Rush or Sifu: they just rely on good design. They don't need 16 MB Normal Maps or super detailed scanned assets. They look stylized and fresh, and, as an added bonus, they run smoothly on low-performance hardware.
You can obtain high-fidelity graphics very quickly with Unreal Engine's systems for rendering and managing assets. But there's no rule that says you have to use them as they are set up by default. It's up to you what to do with it, how it's going to look and feel, and how much performance it's going to take.
Dawn One running at 130+ FPS at full-res 1440p on a GTX 1660 Ti
Dawn One: Using Blueprints for a Top-Down Hack-and-Slash Game
The decisive factor behind choosing Unreal Engine for Dawn One was the engine's Blueprints system. All my life, I tried to code, I really tried. But my progress was hindered by an unusual type of dyslexia (yes, we're all on the spectrum of something).
When Blueprints was released with Unreal Engine 4, suddenly, I didn't have to try to decipher that mishmash of text mixed with numbers, line breaks, and weird symbols. A whole new world opened up, and I realized that I could finally make a game all by myself. I will forever be grateful to the team that designed Blueprints at Epic Games. They were years ahead of everybody else. These people should have won a Nobel prize, as far as I'm concerned. I mean, I'm a clueless artist, and I do vector maths, who would have thought?!
So, I design Dawn One's gameplay 100% with Blueprints. I iterate quickly, no need to toggle between several apps, and I get clear visual feedback over what happens in behavior trees and so on. For a predominantly art-minded person like me, it's perfect.
The most complex element in Dawn One's development: main character animation blueprint:
I understand that using C++ can be more efficient, especially on larger projects, but another advantage of using Blueprints is that porting Dawn One to a new version of Unreal is a breeze. I just open the project with the new version and resume work. I love being up-to-date and not missing out on new features.
Stylized Effects & Gameplay Mechanics
For graphics, I usually let the game run on my second screen and edit assets on the fly. I don't use test maps, I work live on the game and balance things out exactly as the player will see them.
Also, I use Parameters Collections a lot, both with shaders and Niagara systems, storing colors and other variables in them, and reference them in assets and gameplay systems. I can change my mind and adjust things anytime, it propagates through the whole project dynamically, no sweat.
Referencing colors from Parameter Collections to quickly adjust them throughout the whole project:
For gameplay – Blueprints. Dawn One is character-based, so animation is at the center of all the gameplay systems. I tend to store a lot of the gameplay states in animation blueprints. I can immediately try and iterate without downtime. Test-tweak-debug-repeat (many, many times) until the mechanics are tight, fun, and satisfying.
Without Unreal Engine's pipeline, I wouldn't be able to do any of this. I do use other apps for authoring content. I love ZBrush and try to spend as much time with it as possible. When I use ZBrush, it's not work. Like when you're a kid, and you draw just for fun. I also use Blender, 3ds Max, and Substance 3D, but yes, Unreal is the central hub all that content revolves around.
I'm aiming to release a demo on Steam in the first half of 2024, but I can't really commit to deadlines, as you know, one has to pay the rent. I'm contracting for other game developers, and they have deadlines, too. How much work they need from me decides how much time I can dedicate to Dawn One, so it's a "when it's done" kind of thing.
I don't have much of an online presence, but I'm active on Twitter and post regularly there. I also have a YouTube channel, to which I’ll upload some progress footage and new trailers in the near future. Dawn One is available to wishlist and follow on Steam.
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