RocketBrush Studio Team talks about what inspired The Unliving, discusses what makes it different from the other games revolving around necromancy, and explains why creating pixel games is not as easy as it might seem and can even be more challenging than designing 2D or 3D games.
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The team is a part of RocketBrush Studio – a game art outsourcing studio, but unlike it, the development team is a standalone branch that focuses solely on The Unliving. Most of the team is located in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. At the moment we have 8 constant members and some people participate on a part-time basis.
Working on The Unliving
Having done many game art outsourcing projects for the other developers, we finally decided to come up with our own project. In the course of the research, we eliminated everything that seemed too big and too corny. Eventually, we came up with a concept of a rogue-lite action RPG with a focus on necromancy and top-down view. Why necromancy? Even though there were some cool games where you can control the undead, there was still some room for a game solely focused on necromancy with an anti-hero as the protagonist. We wanted to do justice to all those players who cherished necromancer class and dungeon crawlers in the other RPGs over everything else.
The story focuses on the Necromancer whose views on life and death aren't quite conventional in their world. So in a way, he is not a traditional evil character, but the anti-hero whose approach is considered loathsome and is prosecuted by the Church – the main opposing force in The Unliving. Despite a rather serious narrative that will dominate the story most of the time, we will try to use a pinch of dark humor whenever possible. We won't say more about the storyline right now as we are still working on it and would like to avoid spoilers. The only thing is that we try to make it unfold gradually through the narrative so that there's always something else to discover for the players.
The gameplay in The Unliving is based on the following features:
- Raising enemies that you kill;
- Controlling the group of the undead units along with the hero;
- Sacrificing allied units to unleash a powerful spell or ability;
- Balancing your manpower to have enough units standing closer to the end of the level.
We also prepare a lot of hand-drawn chunks to use in a random generator and create a new layout of the level for every run. There will be different opponents, traps, and special effects as well. In addition, the main attack and abilities of the Necromancer will be changing every time depending on the unlocks you make. The artifacts that you pick up can change your basic attack, abilities and affect the type of spell unleashed as the result of sacrificing the unit. Some of them will be so powerful they can turn the result of the battle.
The Uniqueness of The Unliving
Our game is definitely not the first one to tackle the necromancy theme, but we strive to make it different from the other projects. For example, in the Binding of Isaac, you mostly have one-on-one duels with the monsters, so there's no army to control. Unlike RCTN we do have the main hero and the story about him. Additionally, we don't have linear gameplay, but a rogue-lite set in a dark fantasy world, so there won't be as much humor as in the Undead Horde. There's also Overlord where solving puzzles is a significant part of the gameplay, which is not the case for The Unliving that is mostly focused on battles. As you see, there are quite a lot of differences among all the existing necromancy-themed games.
Creating the Main Character
The main references for the Necromancer in The Unliving were the necromancers and the dark characters from the movies, TV shows, and other media. In general, we were after an idea of necromancy rather than a specific character. For example, Victor Frankenstein from the novel written in 1818 reflects the conflict between the researcher who strives to subjugate death and the society that doesn't accept that. This is something we were looking for.
Deciding on the Style
Creating hi-res pixel art isn't as simple as one might think, even though it's considered to be a relatively simple entry point to the game art. But when you develop, it becomes quite challenging to master the skill even compared to the traditional 2D art. If you don't learn all the nuances of pixels, you'll never get a smooth and inspiring picture as the result. Pixel art does allow cutting some corners, but sometimes it becomes even more tedious than creating a 2D or even a 3D model. To come closer to the Eastward or Owlboy level of quality, you should dedicate a lot of time and effort to pixel art. For example, we have already invested around 9000 hours of work in creating pixel art for The Unliving, and it's not even close to completion. So in our case, pixel art is more of a concise choice to convey a special feeling and atmosphere of the game rather than a budget-saving option.
For the art, we mostly use Photoshop and Aseprite, while the communication is handled via Slack. We keep documentation in Notion as it allows a wiki-like markup which is quite convenient. The game works on Unity, so we spend quite a lot of time in there as well.
Creating the World of The Unliving
We would like to showcase the dark fantasy world in various locations so that every location feels different. We picked the visual style of the locations before creating a narrative for them. Despite that fact, we really wanted to make every location special lore-wise so that it wouldn't feel generic. Therefore, locations will be the parts of the overall narrative of The Unliving.
Regarding the level design. First, we make a linear run along the location to find the optimal balance between the difficulty and excitement and check that all the challenges work as designed. Once we are happy with the balance, we proceed to add more and more randomization and keep it at a targeted balance. At this point we rely a lot upon the playtests, so that's why we are also considering an Early Access release – this would allow us to get a lot of feedback from many players and fine-tune the difficulty-excitement balance of the game.
Adding the Characters
Creating an action rogue-lite where the player controls both the protagonist and the army of undead is a big challenge. We didn't have a lot of references for this and had to make a lot of iterations to find a better option. Army-wise our main references were Starcraft and Warcraft 3, although the final solution we came up with is different from them. In our case, the player doesn't control each individual unit, instead, they control the whole crowd. So the player has to control the hero and keep following his army which is quite a challenge itself.
Handling the RPG Mechanics
Game design is a process of searching for the right references and experimenting, pretty much like level design. As there weren't many games like ours, we had to experiment a lot. So our main goal is to find not an ideal balance per se, but rather an interesting one that would make the game fun and entertaining. So every time the player would attempt a run, it would feel exciting. At the same time, we keep working on meta-progress and the game economy, and will most likely be working on it till the very release.
One of the biggest obstacles in fine-tuning the balance is insufficient QA testers. You always need feedback from the new players that have no relationship with the previous builds of the game. This is where our publisher Team17 provides quite substantial support to us. They arrange live QA-tests where we can follow the playthrough of the testers and see their reactions and challenges they encounter. In the end, we receive the feedback document that helps us to find and correct previously undiscovered nuances of the game that usually stay uncovered by the habitual players.
But even now we understand that we need to scale up the QA to achieve a better balance. That is why (and you're the first to know the news) we're looking forward to releasing a demo at the Steam Autumn Festival so that everyone can try The Unliving and give us feedback before the release of the game which will happen shortly after that.
Working With Team17
We can't say much about our partnership with Team17 due to the NDA, but we can share that we are sincerely happy with Team17's support – everyone is super nice and friendly, and we can always have our opinion heard and considered. They are a team of professionals with a huge experience in publishing indie hits, and we can definitely rely on their expertise.
Promoting the Game
We try to post updates and showcase new content as much as possible given all circumstances. The closer we will be coming to the release (which, by the way, is planned for this year), the more cool stuff there will be to show.
Our go-to social media channels are Twitter, VK, and Discord, we have set up a subreddit r/TheUnliving to make the Ask-Me-Anything live sessions there later this year. Oh, and we are really looking forward to streaming and posting gameplay playthroughs and highlights on YouTube once we get more content to show off.
The main challenge is to find the working concept that would be entertaining for the players and then scale it up. It would be a very risky enterprise to make a large-scale "game of one's dreams" as the first project without having any previous information about how the players might accept it. Another big challenge is to find the balance between the scope of the game and available resources. There are a lot of stories about devs who bit off more than they could chew and to be honest, we were pretty close to that at some point.
Speaking of our future plans, they depend on how well the players receive the game. If we release it in Early Access, we will spend another 8 to 10 months to complete the game and create more content for it. Then, if everything goes fine, we'll definitely try to support it for at least another year with both small and free DLCs and the large paid ones. Overall, we are looking forward to having a successful game that we will be able to support for a long time. And as mandatory self-promotion – don’t forget to add The Unliving to your wishlist.