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Grimshade developers from Talerock studio talked with us about their beautiful cel-shaded game, how it was created, its peculiarities and future plans.
Hello, we’re the Talerock studio and we’re currently developing Grimshade for you, a classic story-driven fantasy steampunk RPG.
Our studio was established in late 2016. It all began with the idea of the game. Grimshade was born in the discussions over coffee. A great story, an artistic vision, and the ability to bring all this to life were brought together. We hired more key team members, and the real work started at the beginning of 2017. Today about 30 people are involved in the development. Some of them are working in the office, others are outsourced.
We firmly believe that video games are part of modern culture. Great games, along with great movies, books, and music, affect people’s minds, help to make this world a little better. We want to take the audience to the world of Grimshade, let them embrace the gloomy ambiance, make friends with the characters, feel for them, be a part of all the events that take place in Ree’Fah world.
Back in the days, we thought we’d be making a super-styled indie game with skeletal 2D character animation in Spine, for instance. Obviously, this had been a dead-end already from the start, because the heartless isometry required too many animations per each character’s movement. In fact, we were forced to start with finding an extra-skilled animator, which we simply didn’t have at the early stages of the development.
So we thought, let’s just make our characters in 3D, but keep the old-school painted everything else. We decided that we’d create the environment, paint it with our very hands because it was so much more beautiful and fascinating. And that was the thing that almost nobody had done before.
The team had more experience with Unity than with any other game engines, that’s why we chose it for our project. Unity is relatively simple to master. Quick and easy learning is important for new members of our team. For instance, we’ve created markup tools allowing to unite 3D characters and 2D environment, tools to configure AI combat behavior, etc. Lots of tutorials and an active community are also essential.
One of the cons of this style is a rather slow content production and unavailability of ready-made assets. As to pros, it provides a bright, realistic, entirely unique image, and freedom of creation without having to think about modeling and texturing costs. We hesitated a lot. We discussed whether we should transfer to the 3D environment, but in the end, we stuck up to the initial plan of hand-drawing the game. Above all, we were greatly inspired by classic Disney animations and works by Tomm Moore. Some may say, we’ve drifted too far off these references, but that’s what we started from.
We didn’t use any 3D models for the environment, maybe just a few simple blanks for primary level block-out. All trees were originally hand-drawn. No surprises here. All it takes is a team of cool artists, many hours of drawing objects, detailed lighting charts, and shadows overlaying locations.
All trees are 2D, here are a couple of videos.
If the environment is hand-painted, you can’t use Unity procedural lighting. As well as shadows and other perks of procedural generation. And here you have to make a choice. Either you draw the entire location, but your character movement is restricted to walking along a conditional road, and it can never step behind any obstacles, or you end up with a bunch of small sprites of shrubs and stones, each in their own layer, and light and shadows must be mapped out manually on top of the assembled location. The trick is that you must mind the resources and do your best to re-use your environmental sprites, so you simply can’t afford drawing the correct light/shadow on a sprite. The same stone or pebble can be on a forest clearing or in dark shadow.
We took the other option. We wanted to create big locations to explore, complete quests, fight monsters, and interact with NPCs. Therefore, our 3D models must be able to walk behind objects, which is, in fact, flat sprites. A typical Grimshade location is a layered pie made of objects, each on its own layer, plus parameters and polygons that allow the 3D character to interact with them as if they were three-dimensional.
To tell the truth, we were head over heels in the development, did some crazy stuff, but we’ve gained our experience. A lot of this was trial and error from the start. By now, we’ve reached the level where we have our workflow and pipelines, which provide high-quality content with the lowest number of iterations.
The current algorithm is as follows: a level designer assembles a location draft and orders sprites, which can be re-used in different places. Artists create neat isometric houses, walls, bridges, staircases, ladders, boxes, and what-not. The level designer carefully assembles all the parts into a beautiful, logical, and combat- and quest-appropriate location. It passes through numerous tests, and only after that sent back to the artists for lighting. Every attempt to “move” an object after this stage will result in partial re-lighting of the location.
The light chart (which includes each source of light, every shadow) overlays the location. Here’s when we add all kinds of 2D animations, such as rising smoke, birdies, water waves, and voila. We went even further and made a shader, which selects the tone and color from a custom location color map and applies the hues to the model. The other, dark part of the color map is used to adjust the character’s animated shadow intensity. Thus, if the character is in the shadow, its model will turn darker, its shadow will become less intense, and if it goes out into the sun, it will look brighter, more yellowish, with a darker contrasting shadow.
Some of the characters
Character and monster animation is probably one of the most complex processes. Our style and indie development, in general, don’t involve using motion capture and photorealistic animations. We simply can’t afford it. To rid animators from inventing movements for models, we included concept creation of every animation statement by a 2D animator into our pipeline. This stage defines all key postures, peculiarities of movements, the way they are attuned to each character to stress out their personality and intentions.
It’s important that every movement was meaningful. Сharacters don’t simply shift from one cell to another on the battlefield. They do it in their own particular manner. Ruby’s role is the assassin, and it leaves a mark on her character. She moves like a predator, she crouches. A massive back-row sniper Badger Charlie, on the contrary, stands up tall and straight, his posture is proud. Pretentious Valkyrie Sillie is in a fighting pose of a master swordsman, ready to move swiftly from one cell to another at any moment. A bison tank Amarant looks like he could ram and butt you.
To understand a character’s movement, we would often run and jump around the office with wooden swords. We take videos to capture and analyze the movement. Only after we decide on the nature of a movement, and fix it in the sketches, 3D animators kick in. Their job is to create detailed animations, paying attention to the smallest features, such as locks of hair swinging in sync, the elasticity of a jump, blinks, frowns, and smiles of a character. Regardless of our low-polygon graphics, we pay very close attention to minor detail, which contributes to making our characters alive.
We have big plans for the future, of course! The major milestone, for now, is to release the first episode of Grimshade in Fall 2018. We’ve made our first steps by launching a Kickstarter campaign and announcing the game on the media. Two further episodes of Grimshade on PC and Nintendo Switch are planned for 2019.
Our plans changed many times in the process of development. We were pressed in time, and plans were infinite, so we were forced to reject some ideas for the DLC. We divided the game into three full-scale episodes, each featuring its story (including an ending), and connected with one another. The whole Grimshade story will be revealed only when the episode three is over.
After the Kickstarter campaign is completed, we’re planning to dedicate our effort to work with the community. We are grateful to so many people for their support, ideas, and the good advice they’ve been giving us along the way. The community will have a chance to finally play the game and give their feedback, so we could polish the game by the official release date.
If we were allowed to give advice to other developing studios, here is the most important thing that we would like to say. Don’t start with a slice that is too big for you. It’s best if you take a longer preproduction stage before going into content production. The more thoroughly you refine your pipelines, the fewer problems you will encounter along the way. On the other hand, you can’t foresee all dangers in the world. What’s challenging about the game development, is that you have no idea what may come up and how to solve it. Not before you face it. And then the problems you solve give rise to new challenges. What is life without them? For one, we learned how to do dynamic shadows, now reflections and dynamic lighting are in the works.