The Anshar Studios shared an extensive breakdown of the upcoming game Gamedec, talked about the working process, and discussed building the community around the game.
Anshar Studios was founded in 2013, and at that time, the team put the main focus on the 3rd party support for any other company in need of outsourcing or designing the game from scratch. It’s a slow but steady way to make sure you’re financially stable and can spare some nickles on 1st party projects like the one we’re doing right now – Gamedec.
Fast forward a couple of years, and we have done some fantastic projects for companies like Larian Studios or Bloober Team, and many more followed. We’re excited to see what the future holds and how the world reacts to our newest game.
Gamedec: Idea and Goals
We’ve heard that Marcin Sergiusz Przybyłek is looking for a team to turn his book saga into a video game. We got in touch and sat down to see which genre would fit best. We’ve tried to make it an adventure game or, at one point, a card game, but that didn’t feel right. The project was set on hold, but ultimately, we all agreed that Gamedec deserves a proper RPG, preferably a classic, isometric one.
The goals were simple – we wanted to ditch the combat and focus on story branching, detective work, extracting as much data from the environment and interrogations as possible, and then proceeding with a deduction that will allow progressing with the case. Gamedec rewards patience and being thorough. At the same time, we wanted to create a world, characters, and a plot that will stick into your brain for hours or even days after completing a case or even the whole game.
Was the decision I’ve made good? Did I support the right part of the conflict? What will be the consequence of the deeds I’ve done during this case, and how will it affect my playthrough? These are the questions we’re hoping you’ll be asking while playing Gamedec. We don’t recommend rushing the game to see the end credits, but we allow players to choose how much of the story they want to unravel before going forward.
In terms of graphics, we wanted Gamedec to look astonishing. This is why we're working on Unreal Engine 4 to deliver a complex, system-based game with a unique and rich-detailed art style. Unreal Engine 4 is a very flexible and powerful engine to work with. Plenty of add-ons and tools made especially for game design, advanced physics, and high-resolution visual effects rendering make it a perfect tool for every aspiring game designer out there.
Our primary reference was Marcin's book saga. He created this whole universe years ago, mastered every aspect of it, and he's a walking library in terms of habits, architecture, and sociology. We read the books, we talked a lot, and if we still need help, he's right there to guide us. Of course, not everything can make it into the game, but we're good with compromises – we all want the best for Gamedec, after all.
It all starts in the narrative department, which created both the meta-scenario, i.e., the overarching story scenario for the game, and the scenarios for the individual cases. In the course of work on the meta-scenario, the "worlds" were selected, both virtual ones, i.e., games such as "Harvest Time," "Twisted and Perverted," and several others, and worlds from the so-called "Real World." After choosing the right worlds, they were described in detail, following Marcin Przybyłek's books, which are a treasury of many different worlds that we wanted to include in the game. Of course, there are dozens of worlds described by Marcin in the books, so only some of them will see the light of day in the game - they were chosen during a design brainstorm. We've also added locations that weren't in the books but fit our vision of the game and the investigations.
After creating the meta-scenario, the narrative department started working on the individual cases available in the game. Design documents were made for each assignment that the player receives.
The design document goes to both Level Designers and Concept Artists, who start working on individual locations in the game.
Level Designers start the work related to the blockout of a given scene, following the guidelines and specific rules that we created at the pre-production stage and refined at the production stage. Level Design in our game dramatically affects the entire game's perception and is directly related to feelings and emotions that the player experiences. Hence, we decided to have some guidelines during the production of levels - for example, we have guidelines related to the number of simultaneous interactions displayed on the player's screen. We want our game to be as dynamic as possible for the player even though the player's primary medium of information transfer is text. Another guideline is the number of characters that can appear in a scene, divided into four important groups, and guidelines related to the length of gameplay time in each location. Additionally, if we put on top of that the fact that each place the player encounters is supposed to be alive somehow, and each character they meet has a story and a narrative as to why they are there, we get a picture of the size of each scene.
The stage blockout process is divided into four stages:
- Stage one, which is the creation of documents on which the level designer can work. Apart from the general case design, such a document must contain guidelines related to custom elements and gameplay, which must be present on a given level.
- Stage two is the basic blockout, which is created from simple geometric solids, and we mainly use cubes here.
- Stage three is the artistic blockout - here enters our Art Director, who transforms the level design blockout to a much higher artistic level but still using simplified solids.
- Stage four is the takeover of the scene by the artistic team, which creates the necessary models for the scene based on the artistic blockout.
Scenes and Assets
The isometric view is very graceful in terms of game-making. It doesn't impose too many limitations, but you have to remember that the graphics seen in iso-view are tiny on the screen. Therefore, it is worth remembering how much detail we see and how much time and attention we devote to the asset. The only limitation which is also due to the size of elements on the screen is that the player cannot see everything exactly. Our walktel, for example, will have a few pixels on the screen, so a more detailed description of it will be in the dialogues or in-game codex.
Working on Textures
The process of creating graphics (as well as the whole game) is iterative. Changes were made for various reasons. Sometimes the design changed, sometimes we wanted to do something different from the artistic point of view. Especially in the early stages of production, when we are still looking for the right feel of the location, characters, etc. In general, the process of creating the locations looked like this:
- Level Designer arranges white boxes to determine the scale
location is tested (whether the element will not obscure some interaction, whether the road to overcoming the player is not too long/monotonous, etc.)
- The concept designer gets the level into his hands (sometimes as a 3d model, sometimes as a screenshot) and he’s going to paint it, add materials, create the mood, etc.
- The next step is modeling with texturing and at the very end, we add lighting to the level.
In most of the game's materials, we rely on things that exist in real life (metal, plastic, wood, etc.), and we use them as a base. Then, there is a space for artistic play: adding dirt, wear, generally adding some character to a given object or model.
Levels and Game Mechanics
Work on levels is divided into several stages. The first stage, after the process of designing, is to create the level's blockout. This goes to both the art department and the narration department, which starts the second stage, which consists of placing all the characters in their places on the level, taking into account that no character can be in a given position by accident. Well, they can, but in this case, their behavior should show that he is in that place entirely by accident. A perfect example here is Bob Zappa, who appears in one of the cases we showed you some time ago. His character is totally lost in the world of Twisted and Perverted, and he just entered the place because he's looking for his wife, and the clues led him there.
The next stage is the implementation of scripts related to all characters' behavior and reaction to what the player does. This stage takes the most time for level designers and scriptwriters, who have to script the behavior of characters often in several different ways depending on what the player is doing at the moment, what they did in previous levels, or even cases.
At this stage, the narrative people work intensely with the scripting team because behavior occurs both through variables and directly through interactions—the people associated with a particular interaction implement where such events occur in Articy Software. Scriptwriters then handle them already in the level.
The next stage is implementing the interactions with all the information that the player acquires for deduction and codex systems. After that, we create all the mini-games, which are very customizable for the level.
And then, we come to the final stage, which is finalizing the level, which is where we wrap up the deduction mechanics for that level, all the character reactions to the player's choices, we fine-tune the balance for that level in terms of aspects the player gains. We iterate on elements like player guidance and the fun that comes from choosing a profession.
This is also where the often underestimated QA department sits, which does not allow us to close the work on the level quickly. The fun begins with solving the reported bugs and fighting with the unforeseen walkthrough possibilities we didn't think of before.
Working on VFX
Visual effects that we create depend on the story-driven isometric RPG model that Gamedec is based on. That strictly influences our initial assumptions: on the one hand, we want all of VFX to be as impactful and mesmerizing as it gets, and on the other hand, we have to make them as representative and clean as possible to match the atmosphere of the futuristic world described in the book and help to carry the narration. To do so, we have to be aware of common problems and limitations: it is extremely easy to overdo and introduce too many, too tiny particles, which consequently spoil and misrepresent what we want to deliver to the player. Due to the nature of isometric graphics, particles tend to get lost on the screen, and contrary to primary assumption, they cease to represent what we desired them to mean. They become hard to describe lumps of pixels, which are generic and simply dull besides not being representative enough. Because of that, visual effects very often happen to be underwhelming, and therefore destructive towards narration.
For example, if the story reaches one of its climaxes, and the scene introduces a dramatic turn of events in which one of the main characters gets shot in the head and dies, we do not want the muzzle flash, the smoke from the barrel, the blood exploding out of somebody’s head to be average and to get lost in the crowd. Instead, we boost visuals of those effects up until they start to appear slightly grotesque: muzzle flash flashes a massive ball of light; smoke bursts right into the person’s face as if hell broke loose; the head explodes in blood like in Tarantino’s movies, and all of that lasts twice as long as it usually should, while every other eye-catching effect is got rid of from the scene. All of that serves the purpose of making the moment impactful, memorable, and representative: fire, smoke, and blood — that is all the player should be interested in, and that is why we focus on making that truly visible. Hence, most of the visual effects follow the same principle to a certain degree: effects are always visually bigger than their real-life original; they always resemble the most familiar and most known form of the object they represent, and the more important they are for the narrative, the bigger and more straight-forward they get. It is crucial to contrast those ‘story-related particles with other ones, which serve as an ambiance filling out the world. These are usually more generic, soft in their appearance, and blending into the environment. These particles and materials, relating to mist, dust, dripping water, and also holograms, neons, moving lights, and such are subservient to the same rules as the rest of the visual art in the game — they are directly dependent on composition and color theory, as well as the premise of a level or an event. Alongside static meshes, they build not only what the player sees but also their bloom, transparency, or dynamic movement, how he sees it, giving the game the cyberpunk-ish feeling, and directly transitioning our production process to mastering the light and setting up post processes. Ultimately, everything is dependent on its importance in the story and initial game design.
When it comes to technicalities, most of what the player sees is made entirely with Unreal Engine 4 and its standard material editor and soon-to-be-obsolete Cascade particle system, ousted by the new built-in Niagara. When the production of Gamedec started, Niagara was still only in development. When its performance has finally met our standards, we modified the pipeline, making it the core of our VFX creation process. For that reason, Gamedec’s particle emitters are a mix of the old and the new, with both Cascade and Niagara working simultaneously on the screen. Most of the effects are made nearly completely inside Unreal Engine, with simple math while keeping in mind the optimization process in advance. Except for the simulation itself, which is strictly UE4 dependent, we use as many precomputed assets as we can, including meshes, noises, and sprite sheets. We benefit from different software or supply our library directly from Megascans or Marketplace with its plethora of different textures. Our main, most essential software picks that we all agree on are Blender, used as software for geometry-related modifications, right next to texturing software delivered by Substance: mainly Painter and Designer. These tools allow us to approach each effect individually—since Gamedec’s gameplay easily does not focus on reused mechanics and repetitive events, neither do visual effects. As many as there are, our effects cannot be too frequently reused, and consequently, many materials and particle emitters are fully dedicated to only one effect. It is, as the whole game dev is, the clash between art and tech. Although we manage to optimize the number of textures and materials to an acceptable level, this uniqueness of VFX requires a lot of time and effort to be done, despite the high-quality, up-to-date software it is being made with.
Gamedec's various worlds and moods can be very tricky as every part of our game practically has its own art style. Those are very different places, yet they must be bound visually, and light is a great tool to make this happen. While creating a light setup for a type of world, there are three major parts that we need to focus on - graphics, design, and story. Each aspect is crucial to how the game should look and what's most important to give pleasure while playing it.
In graphics, lighting defines geometry, and PBR materials work to gain the best looking depth and desired realism. Setting light types, intensity, colors, and softness completes the 3D part of the scene, letting our assets "shine."
Design defines where to put a "spotlight", how to help the player navigate through the level, focusing on interactions and essential places. There is very much going on. Players need to remember specific areas and characters, so placing them in strongly defined environments helps players finish their quests without struggling through our worlds.
Story - this defines the mood, how a player should feel, help him immerse in Gamedec's world. Lighting should enhance narration as much as possible, assisting the players in thinking as part of Gamedec's world.
Keeping those in mind, we create lightings like another element of the story, like characters, dialogues, or music.
Publishing and Building the Community
We’re straightforward and don’t hide anything as long as it doesn’t spoil the fun. We’re honest with the community and continuously drop pieces of the lore articles or just straight screenshots, gifs, and demos. We believe in a no-BS policy - we show you the game and the development as it is today, and you decide whether you like it and want to give it a go: fair and square.
An immense community-building undertaking was creating a Kickstarter campaign. It helped spread the word about the game and build a living Discord community and wishlists build-up. The campaign also shed some light on the book saga that people outside Poland may never have heard about before.
As for the community building and press relations: we sneak exclusive content for the press and Kickstarter backers, participate in various events or contests and continuously share the newest features we’re implementing in month-to-month changelogs. We are in a privileged position to have a great team of artists, designers, and tech-pros who feed us with tons of concept arts and bits to share with our community. We hope people to be as excited about Gamedec as we are because we have a lot of fun, learning on the go, and enjoying the moment with anticipation of this sweet moment of release.
We've confirmed the PC platform's release date as September 16, 2021, and it's for Steam, GOG, and the Epic Games Store. This will be followed up later with the already confirmed Nintendo Switch version. We're hoping to prepare more console versions of Gamedec, but we don't have any specifics about the date or final platforms.
A playable demo is available as we speak on Steam and GOG.com. Follow our social media channels to read the newest announcements, get your hands on new assets before anyone else, and don't forget to join our Discord channel, where we share more information.