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Lionel Gallat (Animation Director for Despicable Me) tells his incredible story of how he left a job in Hollywood to pursue career in game development.
Lionel Gallat is one of the most interesting indie developers who uses Unity 5. With a very small team (basically working alone), he managed to create a very detailed and cool looking adventure title Ghost of a Tale which boasts some incredible visuals. Lionel has a vast experience in the animation industry. He’s worked at Universal, DreamWorks, Illumination Entertainment. With this background, he teamed up with two more people and used Unity to build one of the most adorable video games. In this exclusive interview, Lionel talked about his choice of software tools and some tricks that allowed him to build his amazing game.
I was at a point in my career where the direction it was heading was pretty straightforward; the ultimate goal was to become a movie director. The thing is, after having worked for so long very closely with directors it became clear to me that I would never be free to do exactly what I wanted in such a position. In Hollywood (as well as in AAA game studios) money is king; decisions tend to be exclusively collegial and producers have the last word and I craved the freedom of making my own mistakes.
I also found that technology in video games has come quite close indeed to the technology used to create animated movies. So the transition was a very natural one for me. Of course, I’ve always loved playing games so when you put it all together it seemed to make sense to launch into this adventure.
In my journey, I was lucky enough to meet a couple of great guys: Paul (a published writer), Cyrille (a professional coder) and of course Jeremiah (the game’s soundtrack composer) who are helping me accomplish this dream of creating a beautiful, inviting game in which I can at last put the experience I have acquired at the service of something that is important to me. And I think everyone involved feels the same.
About Ghost of a Tale
I would say the games that most influenced Ghost of a Tale are the Zelda games, Ico, Dark Souls and the old Gothic series. In developing Ghost of a Tale I’m trying to rekindle the sense of wonder I felt when I was younger and played games as if they were windows into different worlds.
Ghost of a Tale is a game in which you play a minstrel mouse named Tilo (pronounce Tee-loh). It has elements of a RPG, action and stealth game. The game takes place in a medieval world populated by animals, though they all carry very recognizable human traits. There is an overall political situation and an intimate story (in which the game focuses on). The player will guide Tilo towards his goal and in doing so will begin to discover facets of this world, like little brush strokes that eventually form a painting in the player’s mind.
The Choice of Engine
The game runs on the Unity engine. I feel very lucky that I started using Unity when it took a turn towards better visual fidelity. I had heard of the engine before and quite far from convinced (based on the quite outdated visuals) of its usefulness, but within two years it became an excellent engine capable of outputting AAA graphics.
I love the simplicity of development; it’s mostly based on individual components/scripts which is (in my opinion) a very flexible approach. I know hardcore coders usually prefer C++ but I’m primarily an artist (although I do have experience coding tools using Python). So I learned C# in order to code in Unity and I never looked back. Unity is not perfect of course (no engine is), but in my opinion it’s getting freaking close! I believe the thing that still hinders Unity is the fact that it’s not quite yet used by many AAA studios. However, as things evolve I think it will continue to improve and add features that are really useful for larger, more technically demanding games.
One such feature I’m waiting for is a robust way to manipulate multiple scenes at once, which would be useful for games like Ghost of a Tale which rely on streaming parts of the world to keep things smooth.
Producing Animation in Ghost of a Tale
My pipeline is pretty much based on Maya (which is the de facto tool in many movie studios). I use it to key-frame everything since I don’t use any mo-cap and export directly into Unity. I wrote a tool to facilitate the export with just a one-button click. That was also what made me take a liking to Unity; everything seems to be Maya-friendly in there!
Besides Maya (where I also create models) I use Zbrush (sometimes Mudbox) for detailed surfacing, Photoshop and Crazybump. If I ever one day go back to animating for movies or do some animated shorts, one thing is for sure: the days of waiting for images to render are over. I’ll keep on using Unity to do real-time rendering. Unless you work in photorealistic movie FX, nowadays a game engine is good enough to cover 90% of your rendering needs.
Visual Overkill in Unity 5
The game uses PBR and for the sets it relies heavily on tessellation. This means that a lot of the models in-game are rather crude and simple. Since I know what tessellation will get me, I only do the minimum in terms of mesh topology. It also helps that I’m after a very organic, analog look; I’m not shooting for an incredibly slick and clean style. Again, my goal is for the sets to feel like a movie set. Except those sets are quite interactive of course.
Beyond this the use of camera effects and filters is what gives the game its distinct look. Using post-effects components on the camera allows me to effectively become a director of photography on the game; without those passes to “sculpt” the image the look would be flat and gray.
Visual Design Influences
I think the visual influences for the game are clear: the old Disney movies, The Secret of NIMH, The Dark Crystal, the illustrations of Alan Lee and John Howe, etc. I believe the most important thing before you start to visually design your game, is doing your homework and research. You need to know exactly what you want to achieve. Anyone is capable of making some neat visual piece, but it needs to make sense with the rest of the game’s world. The artistic direction needs to be coherent.
With Ghost of a Tale everything happens in one place; Dwindling Heights. It’s an old keep that’s used nowadays as a prison and is located on a cliff overlooking Lake Vaelia. There are zones, both outdoors in indoors, different areas which bring quite a bit of variety but everything needs to make sense spatially. All the zones lead into each-other if you know how to open shortcuts (that’s something I really liked in Dark Souls). The feeling will be one of a coherent place; not arbitrary “levels”. I’ve also paid a lot of attention to the blending of vegetation and architecture; the idea is that this is a very old place which has seen better days.
And that involves creating the history for the place. Knowing why this location is here, why that part has fallen into disrepair, etc… That’s what makes it all so exciting. As a player you’ll (hopefully) get the sense that you’re exploring a real place. Also, Paul has a formal education as an architect, so he always tells me if I do something that doesn’t make sense!
Figuring out the Mechanics
Well it appeared pretty soon that it would be more interesting for the game to explore the particularities of its animal protagonist rather than trying to be purely a fighting game. That was very obvious during the Indiegogo campaign; a lot of backers reacted to the fact Tilo is a short character and physically no match for stronger opponents (the Rats are towering over him). And since I’m kind of a pacifist at heart (although I have absolutely nothing against violent games) I thought that it would be more challenging to develop a game where the hero cannot kill his enemies. And boy, was I in for a treat!
In terms of game mechanics Paul’s help is invaluable; he’s a professional game designer. And it’s only through exchanges and communication with him that the best ideas flourish. During Gamescom last year we showed the game for the first time and it was an amazing experience. We got great feedback from the players and were happy to see that we were not that far off actually. So that was immensely encouraging.
In terms of implementing game mechanics we talk a lot and Paul and I (and even Cyrille sometimes weights in) and once I’m convinced something can work then I’ll go back and develop the feature. It’s a very exciting process to mentally visualize something and then make it happen. Paul and I have a lot of professional experience between the two of us (and Cyrille is an avid gamer in his own right) and I’m happy to say so far I haven’t spent much time developing stuff that we end up not using.
A Bigger World for a Smaller Character
Dwindling Heights is a keep that is manned by Rats which are almost twice as tall as Mice. That was a point I wanted to explore; to have the main character move throughout a world that is not made to his size. It leads to a couple of interesting puzzle-like situations where the player needs to compensate for Tilo’s height.
Basically at any point in the game Tilo could be found out and chased by guards; so it is interesting to note that whenever you see an item (ie: a chest) that looks like you could hide in it, then that’s probably possible. Which is a benefit of having a short protagonist.
Another particularity of Tilo is that he’s fast! He can outrun Rats (as long as he doesn’t get cornered in a narrow corridor) for short periods of time. Running on all fours is an exhilarating feeling, especially when escaping the clutches of giant enemies. It also encourages players to think, rather than simply hit the enemies until they fall down.
Making the Game With A Small Team
I’m technically doing only about 90% of the game on my own. The help brought by Paul (in terms of writing, dialogs, quests and game design), Cyrille (in terms of tools and pipeline) and Jeremiah (for the soundtrack) is truly indispensable to the creation of the game. In that respect I would not have been capable of creating the game 100% on my own!
It’s always better if you can surround yourself with like-minded talented people. The difficulty is finding the right guys. I believe it’s a plus if you have a solid professional experience before you start to strike out on your own. In my case as an animation director I was supervising many people; and while this is a fulfilling experience in itself I also knew that I had the required personal discipline to start working on my own (which requires a completely different mindset).
Freedom is a scary thing; a lot of people only realize this when it’s too late. You need to give yourself boundaries; to make sure you can maintain the rhythm in the long run. Before I started developing Ghost of a Tale I had heard a lot of scary stories about successful developers ending up in a severe depression and going through some sort of personal hell during development. And I assure you I have no intention of falling into the same traps. I work very hard, but I do so in a sensible way. Developing Ghost of a Tale is a challenging but tremendous adventure and I want it to remain exciting!