Empires Apart: Low Poly Return of Old-school RTS genre
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Empires Apart: Low Poly Return of Old-school RTS genre
23 December, 2015
Interview

DESTINYbit is a tiny indie company, which is currently working on an RTS Empires Apart – a mix of Age of Empires & Stronghold. The team is using Unreal Engine 4 as it’s main platforms and seems be very happy with the results so far. We’ve talked with Gian Paolo Vernocchi – one of the DESTINYbit  founders and discussed the game’s style, technical problems and the way the company markets the project during these difficult times.

Introduction

DESTINYbit is a small game development studio based in Ravenna, Italy. We’re actually a super tiny studio with a core team of only two people: myself and Simone Daminato, my business partner. We like to build a supporting team of freelancers around each project so that we can work with some of the best talent out there, while still keeping our costs and deadlines in check. So far it worked out great. We have a background in boardgames development, mobile games and video game trailers.

I’ve been in this industry for about five years, with about 5 more in the board game industry before that. Working in the video games industry was something that I always wanted to do since the first time I booted up my brother’s Amiga 500. Transitioning over was pretty easy as video games offer a lot more possibility in terms of gameplay, immersion and so on. I met my business partner online while playing Urban Terror, an old mod for Quake 3. We founded DESTINYbit back in 2012.

Our first project was “Within”, the first true competitive fighting game for mobile devices. It was developed with UDK and offered 60fps true fighting game action on mobile devices with smooth rollback-based multiplayer developed by us. The project was entirely self-funded and due to the harsh mobile publishing environment we weren’t able to find a publishing deal that we liked. We shelved the project but we’d love to come back to it in the future. We also worked behind the scenes on various mobile, console and PC projects as external contractors but our focus remains on our own IPs.

Old-school RTS With A Unusual Look

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Empires Apart is an old-school Real Time Strategy game set in medieval times inspired by games such as Age of Empires, Empire Earth and Stronghold. It features old-school gameplay for up to 8 players with 4 resources to collect, 6 completely unique civilisations with 2 variants and 2 heroes each. It aims to recapture the excitement and wonder of collecting resources, building an army and raising to victory.

There are two main reasons why we choose to work on this project.

  • Number one: there are no good new classic RTS games being made.
  • Number two: there are no good new classic RTS games being made.

We love this genre, we grew up playing games like these but this kind of games sort of faded away and we badly want to play a new one. If you’re looking for an old-school RTS you basically have to dust off your old CD-Roms or play clunky HD re-releases of old games. And it’s not like we’re the only ones. There’s a huge number of people out there craving this kind of games, especially in the medieval sub-genre of RTS, and nobody is making them. We have the opportunity to fill a gap in the market, while making a game that we’re really passionate about and we ourselves can’t wait to play. And we can do it with a small budget and in a “smart indie” way.

Adapting Unreal Engine 4 for RTS

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We see Unreal Engine 4 as the best publicly available engine out there, period. We worked with UDK, Unity and various internal solutions and we can safely say that UE4 is the one that is not only the most powerful out of the box but also the one that has the richest roadmap ahead of it.

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Arguments can be made in certain environments, for example Mobile, Multiplatform VR and small-scale console development but for an indie PC project, UE4  offers almost every tool you need. But you’re right, UE4 heavily favors the development of a certain genre of games. For Within, we wrote a whole new input, collision and networking system with UnrealScript inside UDK because specific genres requires specific solutions. Likewise, for Empires Apart we’re writing our own Pathfinding solution because the built-in one simply wasn’t made for this genre. Also, having access to the full source code of UE4 made easy for us to rewrite core parts of the engine to completely decouple the logic from the rendering, gaining absolute control over the duration of frames and achieve a simulation that is as deterministic as possible so we can mostly only sync inputs instead of unit states.

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Creation of the UI

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The UI is being built using UMG, which has proven to be an invaluable – if a bit weird at times – tool to rapidly create interfaces and link them to the code. The biggest challenge for us was to create a UI that was fast to use and understand for expert players as well as intuitive for newcomers.

RTSs are pretty complex games and often times they tend to take a lot of the genres staples for granted when it comes to UI without thinking to much about it. We definitely didn’t want to do that and we designed and re-designed it multiple times, live on stream, with the help of our community. We did a lot of research, tried different options and kept removing things until we were left with the absolutely bare minimum of what was needed.

The current version is still pretty rough in look but we’re really happy about where everything is and how clear it is.

Creating the Low Poly Visual Style

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We would have chosen UE4 regardless of the graphic style due to its versatility. We wanted to find a graphic for our game that was distinctive, allowed us to emphasise and exaggerate  character traits and allowed for easy unit recognisability in-game. We didn’t want to go for a realistic style because it doesn’t really fit the game. Realistic means more focus on historical accuracy, more focus on historical accuracy means potentially less distinctiveness to units. It would also have clashed heavily with our grid based buildings, where a house is half the size of a castle, emphasising some already awkward proportion issues.

ingameui

We love history, we think history is often better than fiction. In Empires Apart, history is portrayed as if it was a tale told around the campfire. We use historical accuracy as a starting point to elevate everything to legendary. We found a style that is a mix between low-poly and hand painted textures, that allows us to do everything we need to do while also have a very distinctive look & feel to the game. Our background in mobile games makes us optimisation freaks and since there can be hundreds of units on screen at the same time, this helps us keeping our resources in check. For Within we managed to achieve  rock solid 60fps action on the iPad 2 with UDK. As of today, Empires Apart runs at 60fps on a mid-range PC with no issues.

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Figuring Out the Mechanics

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It is, in a way. The amount of mechanics to implement is daunting but they’re layered on top of each other which makes easier developing them as well as playtesting them. Most of our work is done in C++ and we use Blueprints to tie everything together. We tried to have stuff moving around the screen as soon as possible and we went from there. In just a few months we had a solid multiplayer build.

A lot of systems are still missing but we’re implementing them quickly. In a sense, this is a breath of fresh air compared to Within where due to the nature of the genre the game went essentially from not working for a long period of time to suddenly be basically done, at least mechanically.

Blueprints really help us speed up certain parts of development. For example, all the unit behaviours are coded in C++ but tied together in Blueprint, which makes it easier to create unit-specific mechanics very quickly. In just a couple of clicks I can make a unit go from farming resources to shoot arrows at them.

The Risks of Building an RTS game

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Yes, I think we absolutely can. I think that part of the decline in popularity of the RTS genre is also due to the over-saturation of the market that happened 10-15 years ago. We’re in the interesting situation where not many RTS get released nowadays and each one tries to appeal to a specific niche of the RTS genre.

We’re trying to recapture the excitement of the classic medieval strategy games, which are very well known and loved by a huge number of players which aren’t necessarily hardcore RTS fans. I’d be a lot more scared of making an FPS or a puzzle platformer and trying to stand out there than making something that hasn’t been done in years. We’re sticking to a formula that works while evolving it and bringing it to the modern age.

Building the Indie Game

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Making an indie game today is harder than 5 years ago, when you could get away with a lot more things. For a while mobile was really hot and then got very crowded and nowadays it’s basically a nightmare and we’re seeing PC going through the same route. But honestly, we also feel like it’s the way it’s supposed to be.

The market is crowded, which means you can’t just make another metroidvania game and sell. It’s gonna be a very tough competition for innovation and/or production quality and that’s gonna thin the herd and in the end, when the dust will settle, hopefully give us overall better games. We’re planning our production in the “safest” and “smartest” way possible. We don’t plan to have a single player campaign, for example. At least for now.

We have 6 completely unique civilizations, but to further improve diversity of gameplay we’re creating 2 variants of each one that you can pick. Our 3D pipeline is all in Blender and we employ a lot of Open Source software. We don’t have a marketing budget, so we announced the game extremely early and we gather fans in an organic way every day by posting screenshots, being active on social media, streaming three times a week. It’s tough but you have to scratch and claw if you want to make it in this industry.

Marketing an Indie Title

Like I said, it’s tougher than 5 years ago but you can still make it and there are more possibilities in some ways than 5 years ago. Press has lost a lot of its power in terms of promoting a game while YouTube and Twitch have seen a huge boom. You can make a very silly and fun game and all it takes is one YouTuber to pick it up to make sales skyrocket. You really have to make a games that stands out in a way or the other in order to make it and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Getting your hands on Unity or UE4 is now easier than ever. Publishing on consoles is also more accessible than before and there are a lot of small publishers out there who focus on specific niches, making your life easier if you’re looking for a financing or distribution partner. You gotta know what you’re doing before you start. You gotta look at the market and find the right niche and the right way to promote your game.

Open development has helped us a lot in that regard. We’re a pretty unknown studio, we can’t come out of the blue one day and expect all the eyes to be on us. We much rather be honest about what we’re doing, showing our hard work everyday to fans and build an audience of fans over time that can’t wait to get their hands on Empires Apart.

Gian Paolo Vernocchi, DESTINYbit

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1 Comment on "Empires Apart: Low Poly Return of Old-school RTS genre"

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Kevin
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Kevin

This looks awesome, hope its going well. If you’re ever looking for assistance, I’m a jack of all trades – hit me up!

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