Mikhail Dadaev, a co-owner of FSTR.Tech, talked about the first steps of his team in game development and the indie project Captains of the Winds they are making in UE4.
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Mikhail Dadaev: All founders of our studio have experience of working in CGI production, on various events and shows. Vadim has mostly worked with events and shows, and I worked with computer graphics for advertising, movies, and shows. We have worked with each other for several years and now we are building our business together. To be honest, I was making my way into development for a long time and did not rush much. Captains of The Winds is our first game project, and so far we've been developing it at our own expense. Our business now revolves around the gaming industry — we produce small applications, develop game assets as outsourcing contractors. In addition, we produce high-tech real-time CGI.
Beginners in the Industry
We are new to this industry and like all beginners, we look at everything through the rose-colored glasses of the first experience. Now we are actively establishing contacts with colleagues and looking around. The challenges we face are known to everyone – we need to make investors and publishers believe in our idea, study a lot, and work at the same time. Everything is standard here, it seems to me that those who approach these issues systematically win.
Captains of The Winds: Idea
I've loved HOMM3 and Miyazaki for many years. These two worlds influenced me the most and pushed me to the idea of this game. The world in the game is a fusion between the castles of Heroes, adventures on the map, discoveries of new places, and the atmosphere of an electric/dieselpunk. The original idea belongs to me, but now the game is being developed jointly with Vadim Vinogorov, my business partner, so we have long called the game "ours".
We're still working on level design and moreover, we are only at the very beginning of the road. Right now, we are developing and testing the first game map. The COTW world is being developed on a 1:1 scale, with real travel speeds and object sizes. We deliberately went for this since this is the only way to convey the huge dimensions of the flying castles; some of them reach 750 meters in diameter and, in fact, represent mini-levels on the map. The first map is about 350 square kilometers in size, and now the topography and positional balance are being developed – we already more than 20 hours of flight on the clock and this is just the beginning.
The game has upgrade systems for the character, flying vehicles, and the castle. Difficulty levels will change the initial balance of resources for the player and NPC opponents. The game has several types of NPCs that inhabit the world – with some you can trade, with some you can conclude an agreement to solve their quest tasks. The game features 20 types of flying vehicles like airships, drones, hovers – you need to search for them, buy them, win them, take them away. Some of them give you such a powerful superiority that you can conquer a map bypassing the main gameplay. You can get such vehicles only in the Gray Zone after completing several quests and tasks. We try to build the game in such a way that players have a choice of strategy.
The biome of the game world is represented by three climatic zones: the Mediterranean and Equatorial zones and Taiga. All three zones are mountainous, with heights up to 1.5 - 2 km. Mountains serve as natural boundaries for game maps and help balance visibility during gameplay. Castles and mechanical stations cannot rise more than one kilometer above the ground and are forced to bend around the terrain as they need a surface without sharp rises or drops under them in order to fly. After several flight tests, we adjust the terrain so that the players could not see the whole map and the positioning of the castles does not give them an evident advantage. When developing organic environments, we actively use a kitbash approach with ready-made assets from the marketplace as well as develop our own to make the biome unique. We draw maps in World Creator, then transfer them into the game engine and test them. And so on in a circle.
Fundamentally, each castle is a city inhabited by androids that support its life and provide the player with resources. There are three types of castles in the game: Temple, Engineering Castle, and Aircraft Carrier. The Temple gives access to technologies for rapid resource harvesting: drone collectors, increase in the amount of extracted resources, search for unique resources and elements. The Engineering Castle provides technological solutions like creating better weapons and making hacker drones (a unique skill). The Aircraft Carrier gives access to shipyards to create and upgrade flying vehicles with unique characteristics. Accordingly, when we design the exterior of a castle, we proceed from its nature. For example, the Temple is a castle from the past, built practically according to the patterns of the Middle Ages, but with a unique levitation system and modern control and management systems. All castles use a modular structure – we want to create as many details as possible and have to approach optimization with the utmost responsibility. The customization of castles is under development so it is too early to discuss it.
Visual effects are our specialty, and we are going to use this to the full. We want to bring the maximum cinematic quality to the game, but at the same time stay within the functionality of our world and not create effects for the sake of effects. All HUD interfaces in the game follow the principle of diegesis (diegetic game UI), which means they are tied to the functionality of objects. For example, navigation will be built into aircraft, and in order to navigate on the ground, the player will need to find an object that'd work as a navigator; the speed of the drones will only be visible on devices, etc. Hence the number of holograms. We create them in classic motion design software and then implement them in Unreal Engine.
Camera Work and Controls
Cameras will play an important role in Captains of the Winds. The game can be played in the first and third person. However, the "third person" option is not simply a hotkey, but a drone hanging just behind the player. It transfers the image to the player's VR helmet, allowing him to extend the field of view. You need to earn this option first, the same goes for all flying vehicles. Plus, in the game, it is very important to notice details from a distance, so we pay a lot of attention to working with the camera.
Regardless of what the players will use – a gamepad, a mouse, or a joystick, – we want to let them fly the aircraft and seeing what is happening around comfortably. After all, we are making a game about the future, and all vehicles have electronic assistants that help them to avoid crashes, collisions, etc. In some types of vehicles, those can be disabled, and some, especially rare ones, will not any assistants at all. That's where you certainly should not expect smooth and easy controls.
In short, I sincerely think Unreal Engine is the best tool out there today. It is one of the market leaders with a huge learning resource base. I can literally find the answer to any question using the help or educational systems on their website. During the development, it is absolutely free, and if you need direct support from Epic Games, you can buy the necessary license. Plus, there is an excellent base of assets on the marketplace. Unreal Engine 4 supports absolutely all modern features and has unique tools such as the Chaos Destruction system or the fully-functional Niagara particle system. Plus ray-tracing, volumetrics, and much more. The level of rendering is so good that we use this engine as a classic renderer for computer graphics – no other game engine offers such freedom and flexibility.
When setting up lighting, we actively rely on our experience in the development of computer graphics for films and shows. Lighting in the game is a separate process, not inferior to the gameplay – we want to make a really beautiful game, and we're going to spend enough time on it. For lighting, we use a hybrid method that includes HDRi and dynamic lighting, it gives us the possibility to choose the most effective lighting mode. Not entirely correct from a physics point of view, but as I said, we want to make the game first of all beautiful, not accurate.
For the aurora borealis, we literally painted a "wall" of light at a height of several kilometers and added animations and iridescence. The same principle applies here – first of all, it should be beautiful.
Challenges and Release Plans
It is very, very early to talk about overcoming all difficulties we face. We are at the very beginning of the journey and I believe most of the challenges are still ahead.
The game is planned to be released in mid-2022 on PC. We plan to distribute the game through Epic Games Store.