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Developing Shady Knight, a Solo-Developed 3D Platformer with First-Person Sword Fights

Alexey 'cptnsigh' told us about the inspiration behind Shady Knight's combat system, explained how he found the game's identity through player feedback, and discussed the game's visual style, mechanics, and how he approached level design.

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Hi, my name is Alexey. I am a self-taught indie game developer. I've been making my own games for over eight years. I guess it all started the moment I installed one of the first versions of Unity. I just got stuck in there as soon as I came to the understanding that it's quite possible to make a game from scratch, even for a single person. This very idea was just mind-blowing, even though it took years to understand that it was not an easy journey.

Solo Development

I don't have a professional background, as I've never really had the goal of becoming part of a larger team. For me, the whole point is to create my own random things and custom controllers, experimenting with gameplay mechanics with no limits other than my own skills. Of course, this mindset means that I do almost everything myself, from modeling and animation to level design and gameplay/tools programming. I think one of the main challenges of being a solo developer is the fact that you have to know the bare minimum in way too many areas, while never being good enough in any of them. Especially when it goes beyond the actual development, as you have to prepare materials, respond to feedback, discuss possible business opportunities, and many other things.

I’m happy to have a wife who shares this journey with me, she helps me with textures and awesome art for the game as well as planning our future projects, so I’m not alone on this path. I also have other game developers and people from the industry just to show my demos and discuss the progress. It's easy to get caught up in your own thoughts, so having some real feedback during the process just can't be underestimated.

The Beginning of Shady Knight

Shady Knight started as a small thing for 7DFPS. My idea was to create an interesting sword-fighting system with a first-person view without it being an RPG. I’m missing pure melee action games that make you feel like a medieval John Wick.

I always refer to the combat system in Dark Messiah because I've never had so much fun with melee fights in any other game since its release. Something about it being unbalanced and physically chaotic was special, even though it has some role-playing elements.

I kept experimenting with my prototype. This was my first time making a first-person game and a custom 3D controller for it.  Actually, far too many of the things that are required to make such a project I only started to learn during the development process.  So it wasn't a precisely planned game concept that I was gradually executing, but rather a continuous process of experimentation and improvisation that led to rewriting and redesigning things over and over until it felt right.

Sharing the progress on Twitter was a huge part of this development. I was getting attention and new followers from my short gameplay clips featuring the earliest stages of development. Having such support on Twitter not only boosted my faith in the concept but also led to my selection by Humble to make a small game from my prototype for their subscribers, which was an amazing opportunity.

Missing Identity 

After the Humble Original release, I kept adding new abilities and traverse mechanics, but the game lacked an identity. Despite having all kinds of fun interactions, like kicking swords or jumping off enemies’ heads, there was nothing in the game that made players want to use the advanced mechanics, even though they were the heart of the game.
This was around the time Steam launched its first game festival.

The Shady Knight demo was featured twice during one of the first two Steam Next Fests. The amount of feedback was overwhelming, and I can’t stress enough how useful it is to have a demo to confirm that the way you designed the game is actually the way people want to play it. And that’s where the missing part came in when one of the players suggested adding a Style Meter.

The identity has been fixed with the appearance of Style Ranking because now the game has become a power fantasy about your path to true mastery. Now your efforts to be stylish and creative are recognized, and while the ranking doesn't stop you from progressing, it's the way to get the most out of the experience. I'm trying to push this idea as far as I can to bring more players into the fun zone.

Combat Design

I’m still struggling to find the right balance between combat and parkour, as they require different approaches for level design. But I think the game is a bit more about combat rather than parkour, so the second one is used not to challenge but to provide fun breaks between intense fighting and to practice your moves, as they are also a significant part of the combat loop.

I don’t know the exact source, but there’s one concept in game design that appeals to me the most – a good mechanic doesn't just solve one problem, but serves multiple purposes. I guess this is the core of my approach to designing any new object and ability.

Even basic things such as slide and jump are used in multiple ways for both – traversal and combat. You can throw a barrel or use it as a jump pad, you can kick an enemy or use a wall kick to gain height. You perform different attacks while in slide or mid-air, etc. My friend described this as "thinking about a massive ecology of intertwined linking mechanics, rather than thinking in terms of singular attacks". This way of designing the game is very chaotic, but super fun since all the new abilities are growing all together with the existing mechanics.

Of course, having a player with many deadly moves should be challenged by enemies that are still fun to fight. The first thing to remember is that two missed strikes in a row mean death, so you are as vulnerable as deadly. As for the enemies, they can chase you even vertically, and while I have just a few types of them, each has its role in creating more moments where you are going to be caught off guard. Later in the game, simple kicking and slashing won’t get you very far without being able to use a lot of abilities.

Visuals and Tools

The art style of my game is basically a compromise of what I can do with my limited artistic skills, using simple shapes and colors. I love minimalist art, and I want to emphasize action. Most of the work still goes into things like smooth camera movements and the overall feel of the game, but that is not what you can see on screenshots, so recently I started playing more with different effects and custom shaders to make something minimal yet interesting.

The game is built with Unity and I just love its flexibility. Being able to make your own tools or add new hotkeys and context menus is simply essential. Sometimes sparing even a couple of extra actions by making a new button can save you a lot of time. Not to mention auto-placing all light probes and generating all nav-mesh links for a level in one click.

Besides Unity, I can’t imagine my work without Blender and Aseprite for any kind of texture or model work. These three are my basic set of tools to prototype anything I want and test out some ideas.

Advice for Aspiring Indie Developers

For those who want to try solo gamedev, I'd suggest starting small and doing what you love with things you understand or care about.

Starting small is important because in the beginning, you don't know how much you don't know, so even the simplest thing you can think of will exceed your expectations and deadlines many times over. And making what you love is just a general rule, why spend your time on anything else?

Of course, don't forget to follow developers you like, listen to random talks at GDC about games you love (even if it's not something you're going to make), and listen to podcasts. You can always learn from other's experiences, get a better understanding of how things are done, and even find solutions to your own problems in unexpected places.

Stay safe and thank you so much for noticing my work!

Alexey 'cptnsigh', Game Developer

Interview conducted by Ana Kessler

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