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Mono Studio talked about their first RPG title INSOMNIA: The Ark, the way it was developed, and the challenges.
We are Mono Studio and we come in peace! Our team is based in Samara, Russia, and we’ve been developing INSOMNIA: The Ark for the past 8 years. This is the first game for us and our members had no relevant experience in this field before.
It took us 4 years to create design documents and lore for the game, and we spent the next 4 years on actual development. During this time INSOMNIA had two successful Kickstarter campaigns (we love our original backers!), a major technology switch from Ogre3D to Unreal Engine 4, and was finally able to get it released last year.
INSOMNIA is about people who were forced to leave their home planet due to the devastating nuclear war. It’s about a journey through space that has lasted over 400 years. It’s about people who forgot their identity and destination. INSOMNIA is also about a simple soldier that became a pawn for the different forces vying for control of the station. Also, the game includes a communicator device in the form of an oversized cat head for your amusement. Enjoy!
We feel that our team was able to create a very distinctive visual style based on retro-futuristic art deco. We are also happy with the lore and plot we were able to deliver so one might be quite surprised with non-cliche outcomes for seemingly classic scenarios and quests.
Building the World
That would be really great if we could have proper concept-art for the locations first. However, we were lucky enough to have quite a few members in our team with a degree in architecture. This is how we were able to design locations without having detailed sketches in the first place. Can’t say it wasn’t hard at times but we were able to pull through this process. Generally, there were around 10-12 people involved in world building, including 3D-artists and level designers.
Obviously, we faced most of the issues one can only imagine while working on our first locations for the game. We tried different approaches, failed a lot and had to rebuild existing content for 5-10 times. This is what happens when you don’t have the required expertise and all the learning happens in the progress. Basically, the main issue here was to determine lots and lots of important nuances like which metrics should we pick? Should the locations be multi-leveled or flat?
So thanks to close cooperation between 3D-artists and level designers we were able to build one of the biggest locations inside the game — Reservation D-106.
Moving to UE4 & Difficulties During Development
We have decided to drop the isometric perspective somewhere between our first and second Kickstarter campaigns. The switch was made due to the limitations of the Ogre3D engine that we were initially using. We had to spend more time on developing our own tools and improving the engine instead of working on the game itself. So this is when we decided to move INSOMNIA to the Unreal Engine 4, and we’ve been using this technology ever since.
In addition, the in-game camera perspective shifted to a 3d person view. Our team has developed a number of various 3D asset modules during our continuous work on the project. These modules are being used by our level designers to build everything we need for the game. We were also able to collect and use an extensive database of real architecture references which brought that high octane mix of art deco and retro-futurism into INSOMNIA.
The most difficult part was building the very first sets of modules and actually learning how to use them. Initially, this took lots of time but when the first steps in this direction were made it all became a lot easier. We continued with adding more and more modules to make the game world look and feel as diverse as possible and ended up with around 10 different sets of modules.
If we were talking about an “open world” game which takes place on a surface of the planet, these sets would consist of different terrains, trees, and other similar assets. However, since INSOMNIA’s story happens on the board of a giant spaceship, our modules are built with extensive use of man-made technogenic elements. Our main goal was to make the scenery versatile since no one would be excited to spend 60+ hours wandering around similar-looking tunnels. Actually, this was one of the hardest tasks because we wanted to stay true to the original concept of the game.
We’ve used Substance for all of our texturing needs. Basically, we have combined realistic photo textures with heavily stylized ones. This process wasn’t automized at any stage and the results turned out looking more like hand-painted miniatures with all of the textures being reproduced manually. This could be our subconscious desire to achieve the “toy soldier” effect, which is something we ended up with during the 3D scenes and characters development process.
Also, it’s worth mentioning we’ve spent tons of time on creating textures for different types of materials (metal, skin, etc.) and effects (glow, paint, etc.). This is actually one of the many nice aspects of the Unreal Engine 4 since it provides some really impressive opportunities when it comes to materials.
All animations were ‘handmade’ literally by one person. Sometimes we were recording references for him to look at so we could achieve the best result possible. In other cases, we were utilizing commercially available libraries, which proved to be quite handy when it comes to experimenting. In our opinion, it is better to try as many animations as you can and figure out what works best for the game.
For example, I can highly recommend the following two vendors on UE4 asset store: Excalibur Studios and Hammerhead Studios. They provide a vast variety of assets including sounds, animations, and 3D models, which are perfect to build prototypes. Sure, this ‘method’ requires certain investments, however, it will certainly save even more resources for you in the future since you won’t have to make everything from scratch.
Generally speaking, 95% of all animations you can see inside the game are unique with 5% being taken from paid libraries, adapted, tweaked, changed and improved before finally being used. Can’t say the same thing about 3D model libraries though. We tried to include pre-made models numerous times and this never ended up with us being satisfied, as we required very specific models that would suit our technogenic environment. I guess if we had to deal with an ‘open world’ style setting (as mentioned earlier) with rivers, trees, and rocks — it could work to increase the development speed.
Our main goal was always to progress with the game itself and not focus on adding tons of content just for the sake of it.
We feel that we did a really good job when it comes to environments and detailization. After all, our level designers spent hundreds of hours to make it happen. We wanted to give a certain story to each location so the player would know what was its initial purpose and what happened with it for the last 400 years.
One of the first locations inside the game – Thyper’s shelter – serves as a perfect example of this approach. Thyper occupied the former sports complex which is old and is in partially ruined condition. It serves as a perfect lounge zone for him since it has an astonishing view of Reservation D-106. It also has distinctive features that demonstrate the initial purpose it was built for with all the weights, training machines and other sports equipment scattered around. And, of course, a few new touches were made by Thyper himself: old computers, books, and an improvised workshop.
Lighting & Effects
Lighting and effects were single-handedly integrated by one person (just like animations). Sure, we have put a massive effort into developing the mood for each location. Certain movie references helped a lot during this process — we’ve picked specific scenes with appropriate lighting and atmosphere. We were heavily influenced by the original Blade Runner movie (which must be quite obvious at this point). Even though INSOMNIA has a more retro-futuristic approach to it, we still have lots of neon, steam/smoke clouds and condensate dripping from the ceiling.
Our locations are quite big and filled with details, which means we had to make most of the lighting static, while dynamic shadows and other similar effects are mostly used for NPCs and destructible environments. There are no ceilings in the game, however, our VFX designer was able to use shadows and light to create an illusion that there is always something massive above (giant vents, sprawling structures, etc.). We were able to introduce quite a few spectacular scenes this way. Combined with an appropriate soundtrack this method creates the subconscious sense of the presence of something you can’t see but can certainly feel.
The Biggest Challenge
The biggest challenge was working on this game for so many years. We had no clue how to develop games when we started this project and we had to learn everything in the process. Many of our team members weren’t able to continue this for too long and we always had to keep up the team spirit in order to have a chance at finishing the game. Our studio has expanded and shrunk more than once and currently, we have a very solid core team that is able to survive anything.
The game has been released on the 27th of September last year on PC. We have published 4 major patches since then and are working on delivering the 5th one which will bring the game to the latest version of Unreal Engine 4. After this work is done we will continue to improve INSOMNIA according to feedback from our players and will also get back to work on the Linux and Mac versions.
We are often asked about console versions of the game as well, but at this point, it’s too early to say anything. Our team is small and our resources are somewhat limited. Anyway, we will do everything possible to deliver the best content for this game and to keep fellow insomniacs happy. Thank you for reading!